Once a French neologism, precarity is now a household name describing in equal measure the fate of low-wage, part-time holders of bullshit jobs, seasonal and migrant workers, creative entrepreneurs of the self, “graduates with no future,” foreclosed homeowners, debtors and increasingly even segments of the salaried bourgeoisie. At its most basic, a term for the economic uncertainty and existential angst associated with the dissolution of fixed employment, precarity also suggests the disintegration of stable societal bonds, occupational identities, social protections and a sense of entitlement and belonging characteristic of the old proletariat. In short, then, precarity is the experiential dimension of the crisis of the society of work dating back to the 70s and 80s.
Increasingly advanced production methods, introduced since the 70s to tame shop-floor insubordination as well as reap the untapped potentials of global competition, have caused a decline in growth rates, which no amount of privatization, financialization and austerity measures has been able to make up for since. Andrew Kliman and others have argued that it is this real crisis in capitalist productivity that lies at the heart of the current slump, and not simply unrestrained financial gluttony, as the more short-termist analysis offer. As capitalist production develops, machines replace people and the rate of profitability, which is given by the human labor theory of value, drops, causing sluggish investment and slow growth. This is essentially Marx’s theory of economy crisis, aka the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but also a story we should know by now from Autonomist accounts about the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (Hardt and Negri) or from profit extraction to rent-becoming-profit (Christian Marazzi), and from David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.
If we shift the scale of our focus from capital to labor, though, we see that the crisis of capitalist productivity is, in fact, a crisis of work or a crisis of a society built around work as the only legitimate point of access for income, status and citizenship rights. Again, Marx is instructive here: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Socially necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (through things like automation, outsourcing, and financialization) at the same time that human participation in paid work continues to remain our only measure and source of wealth. Work doesn’t disappear as a result. It becomes fragmented, devalued, and wasteful, ceasing to provide a social identity or a collective language of experience.
Precarity is a word for our time. It describes the slow disintegration of the historic bond between capitalism, democracy and the welfare state. But it also entails a rallying cry to reverse this situation. The concept was supposed to serve as a unifying language for the multitude, to translate between the disparate subjectivities of care workers and brainworkers, migrants and expats, the core of technically skilled workers and the mass of contingent low-wage laborers. But the precariat never lived up to its revolutionary hopes, its composition too dissimilar to ever become a class-in-itself with a clearly defined historical position or coherent material interests and its identificatory grounds too vague to suggest anything but an all-too-human vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the free market. Today, as the labor movement is growing only weaker and temp-worker organizations remain small and fragile, precarity is more of a reminder that we lack a positive social identity such as class.
But what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a testament to our shared vulnerability into a positive affirmation of collective desire?
Here is a hint from Franco (Bifo) Berardi as to how this reversal might look like:
I remember that one of the strong ideas of the movement of autonomous proletarians during the 70s was the idea that “precariousness is good”. Job precariousness is a form of autonomy from steady regular work, lasting an entire life. In the 70s many people used to work for a few months, then to go away for a journey, then back to work for a while. This was possible in times of almost full employment and in times of egalitarian culture. This situation allowed people to work in their own interest and not in the interest of capitalists, but quite obviously this could not last forever, and the neoliberal offensive of the 80s was aimed to reverse the rapport de force. Deregulation and the flexibilisation of labour have been the effect and the reversal of the worker’s autonomy. We have to know that not only for historical reasons. If we want to understand what has to be done today, in the age of fully flexibilised labour, we have to understand how the capitalist takeover of social desire could happen.
This is a radical departure from the standard definition of precarity as a betrayal of some previous social contract or the exception to an otherwise well-functioning regime of capital accumulation. The narrow view of precarity as loss, exception or betrayal perpetuates the quite-common fantasy that Fordism was capitalism done right and that the only way forward is, in fact, a return to the full employment days of the post-war era. (To be precise, full employment was a political guarantee that workers would have access to decent work, and functioned essentially as a standard for responsible government. Contemporary “job creation” efforts, on the other hand, make no claim to fair wages or decent protection and offer no grounds for holding government accountable for failing to meet its democratic obligations. Increasingly, we hear commentaries describing modern wage labor as a strategy of social control.)
Fordism, not neoliberalism, was the exception to capitalist rule. Both before and after this short-lived period of relative prosperity, precarity remained the norm. Whatever stability and prosperity were achieved during the auferious era of capitalism, they were built upon ecologically devastating consumer lifestyles, neocolonial exploitation of the “Third World,” a racialized underclass and the exploitation of women in the home. They also depended on cheap fossil fuels, easy access to credit and an explosive urbanization process, all of which are growth factors impossible to reproduce today. Although these benefits were never extended to more than a fraction of the world’s population, they were and still are the primary justification for global capitalism.
Precarity is a recurrent and defining feature of life under capitalism. What is distinctive about precarity, in its present form, is that it started out as a takeover of the insurrectionist desires and democratic excess unleashed in the late 60s and 70s. The hot decade of the 70s witnessed a wave of worker “dissatisfaction” in all ranks of the labor force, the most militant examples being the feminist “wages against housework” and the autonomist “refusal of work.” In both cases, what was rejected was not the wholesale idea of work, but the subsumption of work to the one-dimensional logic of economic rationality, hollowing out work of its enchanted content and unalienated potential.
In this context, precarity started out as a reaction against the “rigidities” of factory, family and Fordist management styles. It was originally an expression of a certain social desire for autonomy and self-determination in work and life. Only later, when the “rigidities” of the Keynesian era were dismantled and replaced with more flexible management styles, which seemed to speak to the general desire for stimulating work, collective participation, and creative action but, in fact, only gave a “human” facelift to a corporate culture whose first priority was to “do more with less,” did a non-linear professional life become a source of threat and insecurity. None of the changes introduced in labor relations during the post-Fordist period did anything to address the material foundation of worker “dissatisfaction” (the puzzle that had so troubled sociologists and policy-makers in the 70s). On the contrary, they were designed in such a way as to evade the re-distribution of wealth and power at the workplace, as if alienation were a problem of psychology, not social organization.
This is the classic bait-and-switch of neoliberalism, which has had as a result that a quarter of the adult population in OECD countries (Guy Standing’s estimate) is now struggling with an experience of precarity that has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do depression and despair. The important thing to remember, though, is that the power lines between labor and capital could have never been redrawn so dramatically had neoliberalism not responded to a genuine popular desire for autonomy and individual expression in work and beyond. Removing the “rigidities” of Fordism was as much about suppressing the power of organized labor as it was about managing the insurrectionist desires of young workers. To put in the terms of André Gorz, “post-Fordism [has always meant] both […] a possible reappropriation of work by workers and the regression towards a total subjugation and quasi-vassaldom of the very person of the worker. Both aspects are always present.”
What interests me is how the social desire for flexible labor, that sentiment of “precarity-is-good,” can be reclaimed in a time when “the disappearance of work” is turning precarity into a ruthless mode of discipline and maybe even a health issue. (No wonder a large part of Bifo’s Soul at Work is on anxiety and depression). If we cannot return to old forms of regulation and securitization, could we perhaps push the contradictions of the present into a future where flexibility and contingency are an expression of security rather than a form of punishment?
Intimations of such a politics have recently appeared in the dissident corners of the Left Internet, like the Jacobin in New York or Novara Media in London. Taking their cue from the Italian Autonomia and the lesser-known French social philosopher, André Gorz, we find here a call for a “politics of less and lesser work,” as Kathi Weeks calls it. A society that is organized around work but does everything in its power to eliminate work can only avoid barbarism if it ceases to make paid, productive work the sole measure of individual worth and social value. The idea is not to transcend work wholesale, not even economical work and especially not reproductive work, but to appropriate the savings made in labor time to allow people to work less, collectively determine the content and purpose of their work, and ultimately become more than just workers.
Very importantly, automation does not mean transcending the sphere of necessity, neither the labor of producing the things we need in the world nor the more ephemeral work of reproducing the needs of the body. What has been called “robot communism” is not a world of work without workers, but a world of work redistributed and revalued. Someone like Gorz, for instance, is very explicit about the beneficial aspects of specialized, professional work: its impersonal abstractness allows individuals to temporarily rise above the particularities of personal bonds and communal belonging. Reproductive work, which is essentially impossible to automate or eliminate, is even more important because it is the work that allows people to belong to themselves and to one another in their communities. Of course, the freedoms of both types of activity can only be enjoyed if work is reduced to match the latest advances in technology and if paid labor is allowed to occupy a secondary (“part-time”) role in our understanding of the good life and the good citizen. Naturally, the meaning of intermittent work would be an entirely different one then.
In a way, going through the key points of post-work politics is like, to quote a recent tweet, looking at your watch and seeing both hands point at Full Communism. It certainly is no total politics. There is no mention of social power, struggle or organization here, although there is some work on strategies that could pave the way. Its usefulness, I believe, lies in two aspects. The “less and lesser work” position can expand our language of resistance from narrow and possibly quite futile economistic demands for “more and better jobs” to a proper social strike against the valorization logic of capitalism, and it can inspire non-reformist piecemeal changes, such as basic income, for slowly de-commodifying labor. Liberation from work is a social desire that has always played a minor yet stubborn role in the labor movement and beyond. It is up to us to take it back.