Economic Progress

The Precariat are not the left behind

People queue outside a government-run job centre in Madrid, Spain, January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas - D1BESJSVKEAA

Precarious times: People queue at a job centre in Madrid Image: REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Guy Standing
Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London
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Economic Progress

A term widely used in 2017 was ‘the left behind’, implying that a growing number of people had fallen out of the ‘working-class’ and left insecure and impoverished, while the majority had steamed ahead. The term has been used as a broad-brush depiction of people who support populist movements and sentiments, in the USA, UK, Germany, France and elsewhere.

The notion is analytically one-dimensional, a negative. It fails to capture an important trend of the era, the growth of the precariat. This growing and already huge group has experienced stagnant or declining real incomes, while being pushed into insecure, unstable labour. They lack occupational identity, have to do a lot of work for which they are not compensated, and find their level of schooling exceeds the type of job they can obtain. The notion of ‘left behind’ implies a static situation, which is misleading.

Of course, there is a sense of loss. For instance, the precariat must rely mainly on money earnings, without non-wage benefits such as paid holidays, medical leave, redundancy pay and the prospect of decent pensions. Their income is volatile and unpredictable. None of this is conveyed by the image of ‘left behind’.

And the precariat has been losing rights of citizenship, often without realising it until they come to need them. Again, the notion of ‘left behind’ cannot capture this, since it suggests they are left with some rights while others are gaining more.

The precariat has been losing cultural rights, in that those in it feel they cannot and do not belong to any community that gives them secure identity or a sense of solidarity and reciprocity, of mutual support. It has been losing civil rights, as access to due process and legal justice has been made harder and more expensive. Welfare claimants can be ‘sanctioned’ on the say-so of bureaucrats without recourse. Many low-income people in the USA charged with a crime opt to plead guilty toa lesser offence because they cannot afford to go to trial.

The precariat is also losing social rights; governments have been making access to welfare benefits harder and more conditional, and have mostly cut their monetary value. They have also been losing economic rights; it has become harder to practise what they are educationally and technically qualified to practise, partly because self-regulation by guilds has been displaced by state regulation and occupational licensing. This has erected more barriers to entry and means of exclusion. Again, this is not about being left behind but about being locked out.

Finally, the precariat has been losing political rights. Millions of people in many so-called democratic countries have lost the right to vote, or never obtain it. And millions clearly feel that the political mainstream is not articulating a vocabulary or policies oriented to their needs and aspirations.

Elsewhere, the precariat is depicted as today’s dangerous class-in-the-making, a conspicuous feature of our fractured societies. Those in it face common characteristics – chronic insecurity, low and volatile earnings, loss of rights and so on – but have different backgrounds that inspire differing political attitudes, each dangerous in distinctive ways.

The first faction in the precariat is best described as Atavists. They are relatively uneducated and mostly come from families and communities that have experienced deindustrialisation or live in communities mostly made up of those who relied on industrial wage labour in the past. They tend to be resentful.

As of early 2018, there is bad news and good news about this group. The bad is that they are more bitter and have found their nest in neo-fascist populism. They were prominent in the Brexit vote, in the bedrock of support for Donald Trump, the AfD in Germany, Marine Le Pen in France, Wilders in The Netherlands, the far-right in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, and the bizarre (probably short-lived) revival of Berlusconi in Italy.

In further bad news, the commodification of educational systems is sending into adulthood enormous numbers of students without moral education. Not for nothing did Thomas Jefferson say the main objective of education should be to teach the values of citizenship, not to make money. If schooling becomes little more than preparation for the job market and consumption, it cannot produce socially responsible and altruistic citizens.

The uneducated educated easily fall under the spell of manipulative traditional and social media, which become more powerful if much of the citizenry are first made dullards. Over 24 million people with four-year degrees voted for Trump in 2016. Many were in the Atavist faction of the precariat. Someone may have a degree but be uneducated in the art of citizenship, emerging from college with at best superficial knowledge of history, culture, ethics and politics.

As far as the Atavists are concerned, the good news is struggling to be heard. Discounting the baleful influence of a fracturing educational system, the size of this faction in the precariat has probably peaked. Arguably, it will only produce a neo-fascist dystopia if elites, the salariat and other parts of the precariat are indolent or passive in the face of the storm that their leaders have whipped up in the past few years.

The second faction in the precariat, best described as Nostalgics, is dangerous in a very different, equally worrying way. It is not their fault. It consists of a huge and growing number of people who are migrants or who come from ethnic minorities and who pine for a home. They find they have no home where they live and work, or anywhere else. They do not feel like citizens, and they are not. They are denizens, who not only lack the full range of rights of citizens but are losing more of them.

This growing group in our fractured societies is dangerous because they have no integrating voice in the state. They comprise a large part of the precariat, but feel powerless, insecure and ignored, or demonised by opportunistic politicians. Every now and then, they react in days of rage, and a few may turn to violent ideologies. But for the most part, they experience insecurity and bits-and-pieces lives in quiet resentment or look back on something worse, sometimes using memes and subversive social media to create a counter culture. This is not restricted to rich industrialised countries. Millions of migrants in Chinese cities, lacking a hukou (residence permit) belong to the precariat, and have developed a counter culture being documented by scholars.

It is politically, socially and economically dangerous to have a growing proportion of society in this situation. The bad news in this case is that their share is growing, as are the structural inequalities between denizens in general and others. The good news is harder to find. It is that incipient revolt by those emerging as its leaders could highlight their plight to the point where mainstream politicians treat seriously the cultural and economic fractures that they epitomise.

The third faction in the precariat is best described as Progressives. Whereas the Atavists compare their relative deprivation and decline to a real or imagined Past, and whereas the Nostalgics see a lost Present, the Progressives see a lost Future. They go to college or university having been promised by their families, communities and teachers that by doing so they would assure their future, with a career of security and personal development. They emerge, and now expect to emerge, without such a future, saddled with debt and the prospect of bits-and-pieces lives stretching ahead.

The bad news is that their number is rising remorselessly all over the world, in every society. More are suffering from mental and physical ill-health, and feel alienated, anomic and angry. The good news, ironically, is that their number is rising, so that more realise they are not failures or misfits but part of a large social group with shared experiences and problems. This has induced a sense of recognition, in which more identify themselves as part of the precariat, which is strengthening what sociologists call agency, a feeling that ‘we’ exist and ‘we’ can come together to do something about the insecurities.

And the really good news is that this part of the precariat is beginning to forge a new progressive politics in response to the chronic inequalities and insecurities that characterise the second Gilded Age of today.

During 2017, this political energy may have shown up in uneven, odd or even dysfunctional ways. But that is inevitable whenever the old is dying and when the new is not yet ready to take its place, as Gramsci put it in the 1920s. The first task has been to clear the decks of the remnants of old progressive politics, which has been largely accomplished by the serial defeats or routs of old social democratic parties (steeped in nostalgia and visionless) and Third Way agendas.

Over the next few years, a more exciting constructive phase should unfold, restoring values of the Enlightenment. Those in the corporate world who want to see human progress and a truly global open economic system should welcome and support that. There is, to coin a phrase, no worthy alternative. All of us should do our little bit to help.

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