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The Contingency Plan: An Interview with Guy Standing

The Precariat

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a precarious Tunisian street vendor, doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze following the confiscation of his fruit and wares by police. Mass protests would soon erupt in Tunisia — consolidating activists, students and the unemployed — and become contagious across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of spring, waves of unrest would sweep through substantial portions of the region. Governments would be overthrown. Civil wars would ensue. And so became the Arab Spring.

Meanwhile, a professor in England awaited the July 2011 publication of his book. Two months later, he would observe a crowd of dissatisfied citizens descend upon New York City's Zuccotti Park in search of social and economic equality.

While Guy Standing — the author of the aforementioned book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury, 2011) — may not be a prophet, he does have his finger on the pulse of the frustrations of disenfranchised citizens across the globe. Not to mention their blights, which often begin at the impasse where contingent labor has become a reality in their lives, devastating identities and thwarting access to prior dignities.

The Precariat may have made more significant splashes abroad, but the dealings of his book certainly speak to the range of issues facing current day America and its workers — specifically, the disappearance of the middle class. Standing locates many of the missing as those who have been trapped and have fallen into the "precariat class," a class of workers that is still trying to untangle the complexities of what it stands for beyond the consequences of inequality and the furthering of insecure existences.

Upon his recent return from the BIEN Conference in Munich, Mr. Standing was kind enough to answer my questions over email about his book, the new precariat class and the condition of precarity, and the burden that neoliberal economies have put on the shoulders of workers everywhere.

JB: The notions "precariat" and "precarity" aren't exactly textbook words here in the States — at least not yet. While they did travel through smaller circles of Occupy Wall Street (The New Inquiry's inaugural magazine focused exclusively on the topic), the term has yet to make it to the front page of something like The New York Times. Can you explain a bit about the term's origins and its implications?

GS: The precariat is a concept that has gained respect around Europe, but has also found its way to Japan, Korea and Australia. The point is that it has a resonance all around the world, as I have found in the reactions to my book. People of all walks of life feel that it describes their predicament or the predicament of their relatives or friends. The term started to gain respect in the 1990s, but actually derived from debates around policies to pursue labor market flexibility in the 1980s, which set out to make employment more insecure and led to many millions of people feeling their lives were increasingly precarious.

Definitions matter. The precariat is defined as those people who not only have insecure jobs or move uneasily between short-term jobs and spells of unemployment, but who lack any sense of occupational identity or narrative to give their lives. Their incomes are insecure; their housing is often insecure as well.

JB: The precariat is a class in the making, not a class for itself. You remark that it "knows what they are against, but not what they are for." What should the precariat be "for?"

GS: The precariat is a class-in-the-making in the sense that it has distinctive ‘relations of production' – insecure, temporary, casual, and so on – and distinctive ‘relations of distribution' – in that they do not have access to assured enterprise benefits, such as pensions, paid holidays and health plans, or to assured state benefits, such as guaranteed unemployment benefits. And it has  distinctive relations to the state – being ignored in discussions of the ‘middle class' and mainstream politics, but being subject to reformist strategies by politicians keen to blame the unemployed for their unemployment, the economically insecure for their economic insecurity and so on.

A progressive vision for and by the precariat is emerging. I discuss what I believe that should be in that in the final chapter of the book, a chapter entitled "A Politics of Paradise." Essentially, policies to increase real freedom in the precariat are gaining ground; policies to strengthen collective voice are doing so too. Above all, new demands to reduce the grotesque levels of inequality in all affluent countries are gaining popularity.

There is no economic or social justification for the current levels of income inequality or wealth inequality. Amidst it all, the precariat experiences chronic uncertainty and a deepening sense of relative deprivation. Old forms of welfare cannot deal with this, nor can the fancy workfare schemes that were fostered in Wisconsin. This is why we should move toward a basic income as a right of all.

In addition, the precariat wants to struggle for a rescue of "the commons" – the quality public space on which the poor and insecure have always depended. It is truly shocking that in the name of cutting public spending and allowing tax cuts for the wealthy, we are seeing the closure of public parks, public libraries, public toilets and pollution-reducing institutions. The precariat is the natural green class!

JB: Precariat is a neologism which combines "precarious" and "proletariat." You are quite clear about the myriad of ways precarity begins to transform the worker (or perhaps "laborer" in this case), most of which are not for good. I'm reminded of Marx's ideas of alienation and descriptions of how work transforms the man. Do you subscribe to a Marxist understanding of the individual and how that touches upon different parts of his work?

GS: I think the precariat tends to suffer from both alienation – having to perform labor that does not correspond to their qualifications or aspirations – and from anomie – a sense of despair about the prospect of escape into a life of work that would give them satisfaction. But I suggest they tend to suffer from the four "A's" – alienation, anomie, anxiety and anger.

JB: You specifically make the distinction between work and labor. Why is this distinction important to make? If "labor" has anything to do with notions of subordination, then who among us is fortunate enough to be a "worker?" Does any of this suggest that all "work" in the future might be criminal?

GS: Every age has its stupidity in saying what is work and what is not. Ours is really stupid. Our official statistics actually only show what forms of labor – income-earning work – is being done. And even there the official figures should be treated with extreme skepticism. But the really disgraceful fact is that they are sexist. All the work done mainly by women – housework, care work, etc – is completely blocked out and treated as "non-work."

In addition, we all do a growing amount of what I call work-for-labor, and the precariat has to do more than any other group in society. Form filling for the state, learning new boxes of tricks that we conveniently call "skills" that for many in the precariat become obsolete before they can be put to use, and searching for new short-term jobs – these are just some of the activities that are really work.

The tragedy is that it is human to want to work, in the sense of doing activity around our enthusiasms and in doing things to improve our capacities and the lives of ourselves and those we love and respect. All that tends to be a long way from the alienating drudgery of jobs that the precariat is expected to perform and be "happy" to do.

JB: In the 1980s, rich countries liberated their economies. As a result, you argue that certain flexibilities had to come into play. Among them, the increase in numeric flexibility which proved devastating for employment security. If I'm not mistaken, you go so far as to say that the labor model we knew in the 20th Century will return no more.

GS: The laborist model that predominated in the middle decades of the 20th century has gone forever, and we should welcome that, not lament it. The long-term employment security that people like Richard Sennett lauded — and look back on sentimentally — was stultifying, as well as reserved largely for men. It was a recipe for subordinated, stable labor.

The trouble is that the labor flexibility policies pushed so assiduously in the past three decades have made all aspects of the labor relationship insecure. Many of us do not mind changing jobs or types of work and labor from time to time. Indeed, we would welcome that. But we must overcome all the insecurity that goes with flexibility at present. That is why I favor moving toward a basic income as a right, and why we must foster new forms of unionism to represent us in our dealings with employers, employment agencies and, most of all, the increasingly intrusive and powerful agencies of the state, including the privatized commercial varieties of institution that have been spawned in the name of the market society.

JB: Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit have recently published a book entitled, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice. Do they have a cause? A case? Or are their efforts in vain, aimed at a model on the brink of being gone? While the recent struggles with Scott Walker in Wisconsin might have suggested the latter, does the recent victory/struggle of Chicago teachers reopen the argument?

GS: Old-style labour unionism has little appeal to the precariat. It seems – and this may be unfair to unions – to represent old entrenched employees against the precariat and old-style stable, decent labour that does not appeal to the progressive part of the precariat. The trouble with so many tracts coming from social democrats is that they see "workers" as those doing standard labor, failing to address the concern to advance what we call "occupational citizenship." It is what we do — the work and leisure we seek to do — that matters.

We need a mix of community unions and occupational associations that promote workers' rights and that can represent the precariat much more effectively than has been the case. How do we combat workfare? This has been pushed by social democrats and laborists as much as by the political right. It was a Democrat President that sought to end welfare, with a utilitarian appeal to ‘the majority'. It was New Labour that did that in the UK, and it was the Social Democrats in Sweden that did it there. The trouble has been that the precariat has been ignored in welfare reform. We need a voice for the precariat, not for the so-called "middle class," whatever that is meant to be.

JB: I wonder how much of the shift to precarious employment has to do with regulations having the unintended consequences of encouraging employers to not categorize their workers as employees. You mention that with globalization, there wasn't so much a deregulation, but a re-regulation. If this is the case, and stronger laws might have the increased effect of pushing more people toward precarity, is there any way that the law can be part of the solution?

GS: There has never been labor market de-regulation. The neoliberal regulation of recent years has been intended to be much more directive toward workers of all kinds, but particularly those who are most insecure and low-paid. Workfare is a regulatory device. The systematic shift away from self-regulation by occupations toward state regulation through occupational licensing has been the most pervasive regulatory mechanism in history. Having worked in the ILO [International Labour Organization] in senior positions for years, I saw instances of new regulations almost every day. Restrictive regulation has grown much stronger under the clever guise of de-regulation, and it has fooled the social democrats of the world. What we need today is democratization of regulations, and in that regard the voice of the precariat should be heard in every regulatory instrument. I have given many means by which this could be enhanced in my two books, Work after Globalisation and The Precariat.

JB: Of the precariat, you remark that all are unified in their subjection to the four-A's: anxiety, anomy, alienation and anger. Last week, Mother Jones went public with video of Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser. Among his statements, Romney suggests that of the American people, 47% of them are in effect moochers, enabled by government hand-outs. Can you speak to this at all, about what effect it might have on the election, not to mention the precariat who got to witness (if not validate) their sense of "anomy" in a very real way?

GS: Mitt Romney's remarks are only shocking to the extent that he made them public in a moment of smugness. The plutocracy is openly conceited and inegalitarian. They have no sense of empathy or understanding of what makes up a society based on social solidarity and reciprocity. If Romney were elected, I would bet he would intensify the demonization of many of those in the precariat and would cut state benefits and increase conditionality for entitlement to benefits. There would be a further softening up of people's attitudes through speeches talking about lazy youths, idle young mothers, people pretending to be disabled, etc. And then there would be moves to lower benefits for each of those groups. It is the essence of utilitarianism. At the end of my book, The Precariat, I trace where that led in the past and where it is leading now. The forthcoming presidential election is historically very important indeed.

JB: I am very interested in your notion of the "precariatised mind." I find it fascinating in that it is often the case that the Internet, our iPhones, and other gadgets are blamed for our short attention spans. But you seem to suggest that it is our very work which is making us so — or at least that our work is a very large factor in this equation. Am I understanding this right, that by simply being of the precariat, one is subjected to a kind of attention deficit? (I believe you call it "tertiary time.")

GS: I would like to hope others will read the book for the full argument around the precariatised mind. Strangely, in Europe this part of the book has attracted much less attention than other aspects. But try it on yourself. We flit between activities, we grow accustomed to unstable disconnected uses of time and attention. Our so-called education system has drifted away from teaching us to concentrate and think deeply. Our commodified politics deals in platitudes and sound-bites that helps to infantilize all of us. It is not just a matter of labor. It is a matter of our commodification. Tertiary time is something that goes with all this. We take our work and labor everywhere, and the boundaries between workplace, homeplace and public space are blurred. We need to recover control over time. This is why I place it at the heart of a redistributive strategy for the precariat.

JB: In one of your talks, I heard you mention "deferred success" in a story about a teacher who was fired because he insisted on (and eventually did) failing two of his students. Can you discuss the detriment of this kind of mindset, especially as it pertains to education and its commodification?

GS: It goes with the commodification of education. We are meant to process as many students as possible – it brings in money to universities – and we are meant to produce "degrees" and "diplomas" – it brings in money and it gives people "what they want to buy." And we sell ourselves as academics, producing phony papers for fancy journals while raising money for fancy projects. Reflective learning and cultural depth are sacrificed on the altar of moneymaking.

JB: You note that we are at a crisis point. And while you remain hopeful that a "Politics of Paradise" might play out, the risk of (a politics of) inferno seems no less plausible. Can you briefly explain each scenario and its consequences? And regardless of outcome or the path forward, what role will technology and gadgetry play in this?

GS: I think I can do no more than refer to the two chapters in the book. I am pessimistic in the short-term but very optimistic in the medium term. I think the part of the precariat that stems from the old working-class communities is so fearful that it may listen to the sirens of the far-right. Having been made ignorant by a dysfunctional education system combined by a post-truth media, they are easily misled. However, the young relatively educated people in the precariat are gaining ground, and networks are being created to re-educate that part of the precariat.

JB: As I am in my early 30s, I often claim that my friends and I are of the last generation that will ever be nostalgic for anything — whether because pictures don't fade anymore, or because monitors and televisions are better able to display a wide range of color dimension, and in essence, capture color, or simply because nostalgia is derived from distance. The Internet and social networks probably have a lot to say on whether things are getting closer or further away.

You mention that the precariat's is predisposed to a lack of "social memory." Can you speak to this as it pertains to "occupational identity" and the dangers of not being nostalgic for the kinds of work our parents did? In my situation, my father's been a letter carrier for over thirty years and it is surreal to see post offices closing all around America as snail mail is becoming all the more obsolete (or at least not profitable). He is set to retire in a few months. I think, it must be a strange and surreal existence for him.

GS: The precariat, almost by definition, do not belong to long-established occupations and the guilds that used to set the ethics and standards for those doing that sort of work. The social memory of old-style working class occupations, like that of your father, may have been modest by the standards of the great professions. But they were real. They gave people a sense of anchor, of where they came from and who they regarded as their peers. The trouble for the precariat is a unique combination – they are meant to be more educated than ever before and yet their labor is increasingly well below that education level and they belong to no occupational group.

Guy Standing is Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath and a founder member and co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), a non-governmental organisation that promotes a citizenship income for all. He previously worked for the ILO, as director of labour market research and as director of the Socio-Economic Security Programme. He is author of The Precariat — The New Dangerous Class, published in in 2011, and Work after Globalisation: Building Occupational Citizenship, published in 2009.

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