The Precariat: The new dangerous class, by Guy Standing

Bloomsbury, 2011, ix + 198 pp, pbk, 1 849 66351 9, £19.99

In the 1970s, a group of ideologically inspired economists captured the ears and minds of politicians. The central plank of their ‘neo-liberal’ model was that growth and development depended on market competitiveness; everything should be done to maximise competition and competitiveness, and to allow market principles to permeate all aspects of life.

One theme was that countries should increase labour market flexibility, which came to mean an agenda for transferring risks and insecurity onto workers and their families. The result has been the creation of a global ‘precariat’, consisting of many millions around the world without an anchor of stability. They are becoming a new dangerous class. (p.1)

Standing lists the many different levels of security available under pre-1980s ‘industrial citizenship’, and compares them to the insecurities experienced by the precariat: a new pattern of existence which has now infected most occupational groups. For all of them, ‘labour is instrumental (to live), opportunistic (taking what comes) and precarious (insecure)’ (p.14). Anxiety, alienation, and information overload, are some of the results.

Standing discusses the reasons for the precariat’s growth: a global labour market, the weakening of social and trade union labour market protections, individual and temporary contracts replacing regulated permanent ones, and unemployment benefits becoming more precarious so that they don’t look more attractive than precarious employment. When he asks ‘Who enters the precariat?’ he finds that it can be any of us, from interns to post-retirement age employees who, subsidized by small pensions, deprive younger people of the employment they need. Particularly welcome to mobile capital is ultra-precarious migrant labour.

The 24/7 global market is changing our sense of time, and also our understanding of ‘work’, which is now not only ‘labour’, i.e., ‘work having exchange value’ (p.117), but ‘work for labour’ (p.120), i.e., job-search and personal financial management. Also now very different is our politics. A surveillance society, an anxious precariat, and the collapse of political engagement, have given us a commodified politics, with competitive political parties advertising their wares to disengaged voters. Successful promotion can turn the previous fringe into the mainstream.

How, in this situation, can we provide the sense of security necessary for constructive functioning in flexible labour markets and in a chaotic social environment? Standing’s well-argued response is ‘universal provision’. As he has shown in his second chapter, the recommodification of labour (a shift from the reward for labour being diverse social benefits to being entirely and simultaneously monetary) is an inevitable result of temporary contracts (p.41). This results in a loss of employment benefits: a particular problem where healthcare is employment-based. The UK, with its healthcare free at the point of use, is able to weather the change to precarious labour contracts better than many other countries. Standing could with profit have used this example to bolster his already persuasive argument for a Citizen’s Income (pp.171-3).

Standing concludes with a plea that we take note of the precariat’s situation, because, if we don’t, then its members will be sucked even further into the orbit of extremist right wing parties, where at least they find an outlet for their anger. As he recognises, anxiety and freedom go together, and a more precarious lifestyle is not necessarily worse than one founded on a secure full-time job, and might offer possibilities which that didn’t. What we need is the basic securities which will make precarious living a positive experience.

This is an important book.