Not Waving but Drowning: Precarity and the Working Class

Saturday, December 08 2012

In ‘Not Waving but Drowning: Precarity and the Working Class’, Mark Hoskins takes a critical look at the idea put forward by some academics and even parts of the anti-capitalist movement that the “precariat” is the revolutionary subject of our epoch. After examining the subjective conditions of the precarious subject today and comparing its objective conditions to those of the working class of the last century, he goes on to explore how these conditions relate to our end goal, a communist society and what lessons that can teach us in our attempt to get there.

Not Waving but Drowning: Precarity and the Working Class

Workers Solidarity Movement

In ‘Not Waving but Drowning: Precarity and the Working Class’, Mark Hoskins takes a critical look at the idea put forward by some academics and even parts of the anti-capitalist movement that the “precariat” is the revolutionary subject of our epoch. After examining the subjective conditions of the precarious subject today and comparing its objective conditions to those of the working class of the last century, he goes on to explore how these conditions relate to our end goal, a communist society and what lessons that can teach us in our attempt to get there.

Since the birth of the organised labour movement there have been intermittent claims that some alteration in the conditions of workers had rendered class struggle irrelevant or who suggested that class stratification meant that different workers had different interests and thus could not take united action. This was apparent in the struggle between craft unionism and syndicalism in the days of Connolly and Larkin, or the mantra that “the class struggle is over” in more recent times.

The current economic crises and the neo-liberal program of austerity that has ensued has blown the latter theory out of the water but the idea that different groups of workers have interests so disparate that unity is impossible has arisen in a new form. The “precariat” is heralded by some, both inside and outside of its ranks as a new class whose conditions and interests are separate from the traditional working class. If this was true, the view of class struggle as capital versus labour would be obsolete. Anarchists and other socialists would have to completely rethink their politics and possibly even give up on the idea of building a movement capable of carrying out a radical transformation of society.

The precariat can be loosely defined as workers in short term, part time labour, working irregular hours, who experience intermittent periods of unemployment and who, when not selling their labour, are working to sell themselves by writing C.V.’s and attending job interviews. The precarity of their economic situation seeps into the rest of their lived experience as they move from flat to house share, to live with their parents and back to renting again.

Some of those trying to build a space for the precariat within an anti-capitalist framework see the need to dispense with the politics of the past and develop a theory and practice fit for these new times. The Swedish autonomist group Prekariatet rejects the “previous Marxist and feministic frameworks” and declares “we allow ourselves to start from zero and experiment, make mistakes, and learn and progress as we go.”[i]

Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair

In his book Precariat: The New and Dangerous Class,
the academic Guy Standing describes the subjective experience of
members of the precariat as one defined by “anger, anomie, anxiety and
alienation”[ii].
Anger emanates from living a life of relative deprivation, scraping
by to make ends meet while being surrounded by consumer culture and the
screaming excess of celebrity lifestyles. The actions of looters
during last year’s London riots, spilling out of retail outlets laden
with expensive sportswear and flat screen televisions was an expression
of frustration by those whose prospects of upward mobility and middle
class prosperity are close to zero.

“Anomie is a feeling of passivity born of despair.”[iii]The
successive defeats of the labour movement internationally over the
last few decades have left a whole generation of workers without any
hope of improving their situation. They are faced with a lifetime
moving from the dole queue to boring, short term contract jobs with low
pay and back again. There is no prospect of career progression or job
security.

Without
job security there is no life security. Feelings of anxiety arise over
bills, rent and providing for family.  When unemployment is high and
union representation is non-existent, one mistake can cost someone their
job. Many employers now hire workers as contractors rather than as
company employees. Because they are classed as self-employed, they can
be fired easier and at the same time, their entitlement to state
benefits is reduced.

The
concept of alienation is not a new one for those familiar with left
wing theory. It stems from workers having no control of the product of
their labour, producing goods and services not for themselves or their
communities but for others to sell and profit from. Standing maintains
that the precariat experiences alienation in a magnified form, being
also subject to “the cult of positive thinking”. The modern worker is
expected to be a happy member of the team, working with others towards a
common purpose. They are not just alienated from the product of their
labour but are also forced to sell their personality and sociability.

Nowhere
is this heightened alienation more apparent than in the field of
customer service. “Here the demand to ‘just be yourself’ (is) nothing
but a cunning way of capturing the much needed sociality of the
employee: affability on the phone, friendliness, and intuition”[iv]
Celine, a part-time worker in the service industry describes the
process of selling this side of yourself: “One of the worst things you
hear when you’re going for a job interview is that line ‘we’re all a big
family here’, because then you know you’re going to have to be this
artificially bubbly character that gets on with the staff and can have a
bit of banter with the customers and it creates that weird
relationship with management where you’re supposed to pretend you get
along but you’re really just working for them.”[v]

Standing on Quicksand

The
deterioration of the subjective experience of working people on its
own however, doesn’t constitute the birth of a new class. There would
have to be a major change in objective circumstances and particularly a
seismic shift in social relations. To prove this it would have to be
demonstrated that the relationship between the precariat and capital was
qualitatively different to that between the traditional working class
and capital. When Guy Standing begins to outline the essential
difference between the objective conditions of the precariat and the
proletariat, his theory begins to sink into the quicksand upon which it
is built.

“The
precariat was not part of the ‘working class’ or the ‘proletariat’.
The latter term suggests a society consisting mostly of workers in long
term, stable, fixed hour jobs with established routes of advancement,
subject to unionisation and collective agreements, with job titles
their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers
whose names and features they were familiar with.”[vi]In
other words, the socio-economic situation of the working class is
defined by Standing as the possession of job security, a living wage,
the right to organise and a personal relationship with the boss.

The
working class as described above however, only existed for a brief
time and won those conditions through decades of organisation and
strikes where many went to prison or were killed in the process. The
factory or office worker who worked nine to five, Monday to Friday was
largely confined to the white male of Western Europe, the Soviet bloc,
and North America. Around the rest of the world, workers were subject
to long hours, casual work, poverty and the threat of state repression
if they tried to unionise.

Even
within those areas where years of struggle had provided some sort of
security for men, migrants and women found themselves taking insecure,
part time employment as cleaners, hotel workers, and domestic servants.
In Ireland, the idea of permanent employment was a product of the
nineteen nineties, when the Celtic Tiger boom brought previously unknown
levels of prosperity that are now receding as quickly as they emerged.
Right up until the mid-nineties the standard Irish working class
experience consisted of the dole queue, short term factory work or farm
labouring, bounced paychecks and one way tickets to Holyhead or Boston.

Broadly
speaking, the working class has always been defined by anarchists and
Marxists alike as those who are bound to sell their labour to those who
possess the means of production in the form of private property. This
includes the Fordist factory worker, the office clerk, the farm
labourer, the cleaner and even those classed as self employed who
contract themselves to a large employer. It is the relationship between
labour and capital that defines class, not the length of a contract or the number of days a week worked.

The Stainless Steel Claw of the Market

If
the working conditions of the precariat are almost identical to the
conditions of majority of the last century’s working class, why is it
being discussed as if it is something new? The answer may be that it is
not what is happening that’s important, it is who it’s happening to.
Now, people who were redefining themselves as middle class, who had
attended university and saw the prospect of upward social mobility as a
given, are feeling the pain. “The articulation of precarity in recent
years is… due to ‘its discovery among those who had not expected it’;
those who might previously have been shielded by the relative stability
of Fordism.”[vii]

Like
all good movie victims, the precarious subject had let its guard down.
It seemed as if the spectre of unemployment was a thing of the past.
The confident, educated, post-industrial worker could leave one job on
Friday and walk into a new one on Monday. Our generation’s future was
paved with gold or at least gold credit cards. When it was least
expected, the villain that was assumed vanquished re-appeared in the
form of the financial crisis and the economic shock doctrine that
accompanied it.

By
the end of the July 2012 in Ireland, there were over four hundred and
sixty thousand people signing on the live register.  Over eighty
thousand of these were registered as casual workers (working three days
or less). This figure doesn’t account for people working more than
three days who only work a few hours a day, those who don’t know they
are entitled to sign or those who have a partner with means from
insurable employment. Fifty six percent of the total live register was
made up of short term claimants. This suggests that there is a constant
turnover of people moving from the dole to short term contract and
insecure employment as the live register figure itself has stayed
relatively static over the last year. [viii]

The
relatively sudden rise in unemployment and precarity had a knock on
effect in housing. The tiger generation saw the biggest rise in
home-ownership in the history of the Irish state. Of course “ownership”
in the majority of cases meant mortgage holding. When the crisis hit
and the toll on the labour market became apparent, this translated into
a meteoric rise in negative equity mortgages, arrears and
repossessions. At the end of March of this year, over seventy seven
thousand mortgages (10.2% of total stock) were in arrears of over
ninety days. Almost sixty thousand of these were in arrears of over one
hundred and eighty days. Legal proceedings were issued to enforce the
debt on two hundred and seventy eight mortgages and one hundred and
seventy of these were repossessed.[ix]

Homelessness
is also on the rise. It is difficult to obtain precise statistics on
this phenomenon but the 2011 census recorded three thousand eight
hundred homeless people, with over three thousand seven hundred of these
in accommodation for the homeless. Half of those aged fifteen or over
were in employment, while four hundred and fifty seven were children
under the age of fourteen.  Nine hundred and five people comprised two
hundred and ninety six family units.[x]

We Are Just Statistics

What
is startling about these figures is that a large proportion of
homeless people do not fit the stereotype of the person living rough,
who is alone, unemployed and perhaps unemployable. The picture they
actually paint is of the sharp end of precarity in the Irish state.
Government statistics however, tell a limited story. The numbers
classified as homeless by the CSO only represents people on the streets
or in designated accommodation for the homeless. It does not account
for the thousands of others whose housing situation is precarious, who
have been forced to couch surf at friends houses, adults who have had
to move in with their parents or those who are constantly under threat
of losing their homes due to low wages, unemployment or
underemployment.

The
Roman poet Horace wrote that “we are just statistics, born to consume
resources.” Horace was the favourite poet of the Emperor Octavian and a
mouthpiece for the new imperial order. The language of the state’s
statistical data presentation replicates this attitude. The terms casual
worker, unemployed, underemployed and jobseeker mask the fact that the
problem is not necessarily whether one is unemployed or underemployed
but whether one possesses the income necessary to live comfortably.
They also hide the subjective experience of the precarious individual,
the emotional and psychological effects of precarity and the
restrictions it places upon life outside of work.

Paradoxically,
it seems the more time the modern worker spends out of work the less
freedom they posses. The next offer of work may be only hours away, so
constant availability is a must. Celine’s leisure time is regularly
disturbed by a phone call from the job.  “I find it very difficult to
plan ahead. I’m supposed to be given three days notice before I’m
working but that rarely happens. A lot of the time it can be less than
two days notice and it’s often less than twelve hours notice.”[xi]
Constant availability places huge strains on the individual and their
ability to lead a normal life. It is common to hear people talking of
not being allowed time off work for funerals or family emergencies at
short notice. One individual had been refused time off to attend his own
graduation.[xii]

With
the labour market firmly favouring employers, scenarios like this are
hard to avoid. Long commutes are no longer a reason to refuse a job.
Neither is low pay or the knowledge that the job may only last a couple
of weeks. Moving from one neighbourhood to another because the only job
available is on the other side of the city makes it difficult to
settle anywhere. Friendships and other personal relationships become
precarious and the people around you come to resemble a rotating cast
of extras in a television soap opera.

The Troika is Coming, Look Busy

One
particular feature of the present age is the move towards the
institutionalisation of precarity. If the institutionalisation of
Fordism and Taylorism in the last century could be described as the
militarisation of labour, then the current trend represents its
militia-isation. The demand of constant availability is no longer the
preserve of the small employer; it also extends to the corporation and
the state. The corporation demands we take our work home, that we are
contactable via email and smart phones. The distinction between work
time and free time is evaporating. The state however demands that even
when we are not linked to a particular employer, we are constantly job
seeking, constantly training, always available for welfare reviews and
FÁS interviews.

Since
the tightening of the grip of the troika over the economic policy of
the Irish state with the ratification of the fiscal compact there have
been moves towards increased assessment, inspection and regulation of
welfare recipients. To speed this up, compulsory personal interviews to
assess job prospects or the need for further training with FÁS have
been replaced with group sessions that were described by one individual
as something like AA meetings for the unemployed.  “There were twelve
of us at the meeting, mainly lads in their twenties. They sat us down
and did a couple of powerpoint presentations, showing us options like
Job Bridge or self-employment schemes. The overall message was ‘get the
fuck off the dole’. No one asked any questions, everyone just wanted
to get out as quickly as possible.”[xiii]

Job
Bridge is an internship scheme whereby welfare recipients work for six
or nine months and are paid their regular social welfare rate plus an
extra fifty euro allowance. For anyone working more than twenty seven
and a half hours a week, that works out below the minimum wage. It is
not yet compulsory, but refusal to attend FÁS interviews or comply with
the TÚS community work placement scheme can result in benefits being
withdrawn. It would not be a major departure in policy if Job Bridge
went the same way. With new profiling measures in place it will become
easier to centrally direct labour under the pretence of getting people
out of “unemployment traps”.

The
experience of other EU countries suggests a move in this direction.
Workfare, a similar scheme to Job Bridge in the UK is compulsory in some
cases and in cases where it is not strictly mandatory, the threat of
sanctions is still used. George Osborne MP stated that “young people who
do not engage with this offer will be considered for mandatory work
activity and those that drop out without good reason will lose their
benefits”[xiv]There
is also evidence that Workfare is replacing paid jobs, with “ASDA
sending paid staff home early over the Christmas period and using
Workfare to fill the gaps.”[xv]

Work Less, Live More

Since
the beginning of the economic crisis, sections of the left in Ireland
and the UK have made the right to work a central demand. While it is
important that those who wish to work for a living are given the
opportunity, there is a danger of fetishising work for its own sake. The
right to work under capitalism means the right to sell one’s labour,
the right to be exploited by the owners of private property. More often
than not it means the right to participate in the production of goods
and services that the individual worker has no interest in other than
the wage they receive at the end of the week.

In
many cases the full time worker finds themselves in a position that is
the polar opposite of the precarious worker but is not necessarily
more desirable. In the best case scenario, they have a regular income
which provides the financial means to live the way they want to, but
they don’t have the time or energy to do the things they want. Work
that takes over the majority of one’s life, that is not geared towards
one’s own abilities and interests can be asphyxiating and dehumanising.
The call for the right to work should be accompanied by the adverb
“less” and the phrase “for more”.

The
valorisation of the Fordist worker only became central to the labour
movement upon the ascendency of social democratic and Leninist hegemony.
The Russian “Communists” wanted rapid industrialisation and believed
that one-man management and bureaucratically centralised production were
the best ways to achieve this. The social democrats were in favour of
incremental improvements in workers’ conditions under capitalism. In
both cases Fordism and Taylorism made ideological sense.

The
fight for the eight hour day and union recognition in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries however, were not seen as ends
in themselves but as a means to an end. The International Workingmen’s
Association saw it as “a preliminary condition without which all
further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class
must prove abortive”.[xvi]
After the eight hour day was won, the expectation was that unions
would fight for further improvements and some did. The IWW has been
calling for a four hour day for over seventy years and when they
adopted that demand, even “the American Federation of Labor was
officially committed to the six hour day.”[xvii]

Communism through the Looking Glass

If
the goal anarchists are trying to achieve is a libertarian communist
society, then the way we think about campaigns for reforms must take
that into account. In The German Ideology,
Marx wrote that “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive
sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he
wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it
possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in
the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,
criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a
hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”[xviii]

The
condition of the precarity under capitalism in the twenty first
century is a perverse mirror image of Marx’s vision of work under
communism. The precarious worker has no exclusive sphere of activity
but becomes accomplished in none either. It is possible for one to be a
barista in January, an office clerk in April, a tour guide in July, a
shop assistant in December and a job seeker for the rest of the year, without ever becoming a barista, office clerk, tour guide or shop assistant. Rather
than calling for the return of Fordism and specialisation, there is a
need to seriously rethink how we get from the current state of things
to the society we desire.

“A
think-tank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF)… argues that if
everyone worked fewer hours – say, 20 or so a week – there would be more
jobs to go round, employees could spend more time with their families
and energy-hungry excess consumption would be curbed.”[xix]Sharing
work is important, but the NEF clearly do not advocate a twenty hour
week with the same remuneration that is currently applicable for a forty
hour week. The implication is that to curb “energy-hungry excess
consumption” people would have to earn less and adjust their lifestyles
accordingly. Guy Standing on the other hand argues that the state
should guarantee a minimum income that would cover life’s necessities
while any further income would be accumulated through “work for
labour”.[xx]This
would be funded via taxation and states investing in “emerging
economies” I.E. the exploitation of labour in other countries.

Both
of these solutions are based on utopian capitalist visions. They rely
on legislators that are bought and sold by large corporations to act in
the best interests of working people and in both cases they fall way
short of those interests. The interests of the majority of the
population can only be served by their self-organisation to campaign for
improvements in their own living conditions. Our demands however must
develop tangentially to forms of exploitation and oppression into an
expression of the needs and desires of the broad working class.

The Praxis of Everyday Life

Demands
however are nothing without a movement capable of carrying them out.
Despite precarious workers being the most exploited sections of the
working class, organising them can be problematic. Traditional trade
union structures make it difficult to organise workers whose employment
is often short term. The effort of joining a union might not seem worth
it if you know you’re going to be leaving that job in a matter of
weeks or months at which point you’re unemployed or in another job
where a different union organises the workforce. Union organisers may
not see the point in recruiting members who won’t be there for the long
haul, especially where a union is service-orientated.

The
early history of the Industrial Workers of the World in the United
States holds some lessons for organising today. “They found that
membership tended to swell dramatically with struggles, and then ebb
away. It’s been said that “many a worker who did not carry the red
membership card or had kept up dues payments was still to be counted a
Wobbly.” The IWW was opposed on principle to the kind of incentives for
member retention pursued by more mainstream unions, such as health or
insurance benefits, and instead opted to deploy a job delegate system.
This entailed travelling organisers authorised to collect dues and form
union locals amongst the highly mobile, casual workforce of the early
20th century United States. Consequently, ‘a local could exist in the
hat or satchel of a mobile delegate.’”[xxi]

What
is necessary is an organisation whose structures do not require
permanent active membership, where a member can move from job to job and
link in with the local section wherever they go. The battles it should
take on should come directly from the needs and desires of its
members. All too often activists on the left neglect to reflect on
their everyday lived experience, preferring to campaign on whatever the
big issue of the day is, believing this will encourage people to get
involved.

While
it may not be necessary to “start from zero” in terms of theory as the
Swedish group Prekariatet have suggested, it is a useful approach when
tackling demands. Rather than assuming what people’s issues are,
organisers should engage in workshops with work colleagues, friends and
neighbours to see what common problems people face and come up with
ideas for solving them and ways of organising around them.[xxii]

Beyond
the grandiose claims of academics like Guy Standing of the precariat
being a new class, there are a growing number of people drowning in a
sea of uncertainty. Their passivity can be mistaken for an unwillingness
to organise and fight back but it is more likely that they just don’t
see the point. Many see the unions as lobby groups for a select group
of “privileged” workers with secure, fixed wage jobs and benefits such
as pension schemes. The challenge for activists of the left over the
coming period is to find ways of organising that are fit for purpose,
that are extensions of working and unemployed people’s lived experience
and that can also point the way towards a radical transformation of
society. The world isn’t static so it is important to keep
re-interpreting it, but the point is still to change it.

Source: infoshop

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About tahriricn

bringing together anarchist perspectives from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe

Posted on December 9, 2012, in Capitalism, Europe, Theory of Anarchism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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