Kalyani Unkule analyses Guy Standing’s Precariat as a cogent, accessible foray into the specific nature of present-day “proletarianisation” of sections of Western society, a process marked by precariousness more than anything else, she feels, as the title suggests.
Title: The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class
Author: Guy Standing (Bloomsbury. 2nd Edition. 2014)
The precariat, as it stands today, is a motley crew of individuals of varying ages but with the shared characteristic of being socially downwardly mobile. Young entrants to the workforce identify with the precariat when they find themselves overqualified for the jobs they are in and experience the accompanying diminution in status. But the author explains that the Precariat is not comprised of the youth alone, nor does it stem exclusively from the rebellious streak frequently associated with this demographic. It is the increasing numbers of middle-aged workers joining the ranks of the insecurely and casually employed that further invites interest in understanding this category. A third set of people who fall within this broad rubric are those with employment security but without job security. This subset refers to cases of long term employees of organisations and civil services who are required to regularly transition into different roles and responsibilities and are expected to develop an appetite for what seems like endless “functional flexibility”. There is also an element of volition involved when members of each sub-category are further classified by the author as “grinners” and “groaners”, with the former having willingly embraced the life of the precariat.
Of these, the specific condition of the younger precariat is most fully explored, characterised chiefly by the debt incurred in securing an expensive education, dismal employment prospects in the wake of the economic crisis, longer durations of poorly-paid probationary and temporary positions and a sense of resentment for the previous generation. “Remarkably”, says Standing, “more UK youth say they belong to the working class than think their parents belonged to it”. He absolves the younger generation of the charge of insisting on a better work-life balance on the grounds that “for psychological and economic reasons, many cannot afford to be as committed to jobs that could evaporate at short notice”.
Standing explores both the psychological and social implications of this condition. The psychological cost on the individual can be summed up in the well-known ideas of rootlessness and Marxist anomie. Of greater novelty however is the book’s argument that the precariat cannot enjoy that part of social income which includes informal mutual insurance provided by family and community and accrues from long-term group membership and stable bonds. For adult males in particular, this crisis is exacerbated by the increased feminisation of the work force, coupled with a lack of realistic prospects to fill the traditional role of the breadwinner. For those who evade the extremes of substance abuse and indebtedness, this still means a gradual erosion of ambition and pervasive ennui, and eventually, inability to form lasting relationships.
Leading drivers of precariatisation are identified as the increase in labour supply ensuing from liberalisation and opening up of the Chinese and Indian economies as also the commodification of firms whereby, frequent changes in ownership of firms has been accompanied by a drop in standards of accountability. The resulting re-commodification of labour and the growing trend towards contractual flexibility are discussed as key symptoms of this transformation. Standing does not however view the response to these phenomena in conventional leftist terms. For instance, the anti-capitalist agenda of the precariat does not automatically align them with the trade unionists, whom they perceive as endogenous to the exploitative system rather than posing a challenge to it.
The Precariat blends a rearticulating of key points of critique of neo-liberal globalisation with an attempt to delineate the attributes of a novel resistance emerging against it. The introduction presages emergence of a new movement but subsequent chapters manage to establish, at best, a more widespread sense of futility than prevailed a couple of generations ago that manifests itself now as seething anger, now as cold apathy but for the most part, as grudging acceptance. An important opportunity to understand these potentially far-reaching changes is missed when Standing does not dwell at sufficient length on the “grinners” or those who are embracing this lifestyle, as it were, by choice. It is conceivable that more rigorous inquiry into this demographic would yield clues to tomorrow’s world of work and the transformation in individual and social life it portends. One is also struck, on more than one occasion, by the perception of change, whether in the desired direction or not, as a zero sum game with women necessarily imposing costs on men as they become more active participants or with newly industrialising economies achieving growth by means that unavoidably hurt their more advanced counterparts.
In the author’s defence, he acknowledges that “The evolution of the precariat as the agency of a politics of paradise is still to pass from the theatre and visual ideas of emancipation to a set of demands that will engage the state rather than merely puzzle or irritate it”, inspiring him to work on a sequel entitled A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens.
Kalyani Unkule is Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean at Jindal Global Law School