|Guy Standing is not a member of his precariat.|
Professor Guy Standing is the author of The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class. The British academic is speaking at Labour's Future of Work conference (March 23-24) and at meetings organised by the Fabian Society. Standing says the working class is being replaced by 'the precariat'.
The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. –Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
ONE OF THE FEATURED speakers at the Labour Party's Future of Work conference next week is Professor Guy Standing from the University of London. He's also speaking at various events organised by Labour's unofficial think tank, the Fabian Society.
Why has the Labour Party suddenly latched on to this particular British academic? Largely because he provides another 'theoretical' justification for its march further to the right. While the Fabian Society has largely articulated mild Keynesian-inspired alternatives to neoliberalism, Standing delivers up another 'explanation' why Labour is abandoning working class politics - because there is, in fact, no longer a working class, at least not in the way that it is normally conceived.
At this point, the left departs company with Standing. For the socialist left it is the working class that is at the heart of transformative and structural change. While we might be talkin' about a revolution, Standing thinks the revolution has been cancelled permanently. He denies that the working class still has the power to challenge capitalism. This view is, of course, attractive to a Labour Party and its dwindling band of supporters who, when we get down to the nitty-gritty, always defend the rule of capital.
Standing counterposes to the working class what he defines as his 'precariat'. He is, at best, ambivalent as to whether his precariat is actually a class and sometimes describes it as 'a class in the making'. We're off to a bad start here and Standing's discussion is indeed often vague and nebulous. Let's just describe the precariat as workers who endure insecure conditions and low wages. Standing writes that the precariat can be defined by insecurity - “labour market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security.”
Standing's precariat live lives of precariousness. It's worth pointing out that what Standing is describing is the lives of most people today, people who don't happen to own the means of production. That, in popular parlance, is 99 percent of us.
But argues Standing: “Work and labour are on the cusp of transformation, with 20th century concepts increasingly unfit for purpose. Above all, the 20th century income distribution system has broken down in this age of rentier capitalism. A new class structure has emerged, with the precariat as the largest and most insecure group.
This statement was included in a Labour Party press release for the Future of Work conference.
While Standing's view might be attractive to people who are opposed to socialist politics but still like to be convinced that they remain 'progressive' rather than as defenders of a system wracked by inequality and injustice, it bears little relationship to reality.
The big news, but hardly a revelation, is that the working class is never static. Indeed Marx and Engels pointed out over a century ago that the composition of the working class is constantly changing with the development of capitalism itself.
In the Communist Manifesto, which seems to me to becoming increasingly more relevant, Marx writes about how 'all that is solid melts into air". Capitalism is constantly seeking new ways to expand, to make more capital. And so the composition of the working class changes. But the working class itself does not disappear - unfortunately for right wing members and supporters of the Labour Party which, historically, owes its existence to the working class.
In contemporary times, in the age of a fierce assault by capital against the post war gains of the working class, high unemployment, competition for jobs, and the downward pressure on wages have served to intensify the race to the bottom for workers, creating even more precarious terms and conditions.
While Standing talks about the rise of the precariat, his 'dangerous class' that threatens social and political stability, what is really dangerous is being conned into believing that neoliberalism is all powerful and unstoppable and, against it, the working class has been rendered politically impotent.
While those at the Labour's Future of Work conference and the Fabian Society meetings will nod their heads sympathetically as Professor Standing shares his 'wisdom', it will occur against the backdrop of a world where inequality is rising and wealth is more concentrated than ever.
There is still a world to win and it is the working class that leads the struggle to win that world.
In the end, as Richard Seymour points out, we are all the precariat:
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.