Edward Elgar, 2009, xi + 366 pp, hb, 1 84844 164 4, £89.95
This is an important book with a monumental scope. Guy Standing reviews the sweep of labour conditions since before the nineteenth century. He starts with Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation published originally in 1944, in which Polanyi charts the commodification of labour. ‘Polanyi depicted the nineteenth century as an attempt to create a market society in which everything was turned into a commodity, driven by the rising power of financial capital’ (p.3). ‘The early period was one of ‘disembeddedness’, in which financial and industrial capital broke down old systems of regulation, social protection and redistribution … to create national markets, including a national labour market.’ The disembedded phase lasted into the early twentieth century.
It was followed by state reaction, which tried to prevent market forces being socially destructive, using new mechanisms of social protection, regulation and redistribution. This embedded phase, in which the state re-embedded the economy into society, occurred in the three decades following the Second World War.
Since then, a Global Transformation has been in full flood. Once again, in the continuing battle between markets and communities, the cycle of recommodification and decommodification of many aspects of life, particularly of labour, has continued, and markets have once again taken the ascendancy.
Early in the book, Standing discusses and defines various terms for future reference within his text. These include: the differences between work and labour, the differences between labour and labour power, and the concepts of employment, occupation, vocation, career, profession, crafts and job. Concepts imply the social contexts in which they take place. He relates leisure to work, and play to labour. ‘Unlike labour, “work” captures the activities of necessity, surviving and reproducing, and personal development.’ ‘In work, there is room and respect for inaction and contemplation.’ He says that in ancient Greece ‘reproductive activity, praxis, work done for its own sake, was a means of strengthening personal relationships, between relatives, friends and citizens’.
Half of the book is devoted to examining the decommodification and recommodification of labour in different time periods. The growing inequality has led to a new class system. (It has been suggested elsewhere that there are now two classes in the UK: citizen, and an underclass.) Standing distinguishes between the global elite, the salariat, the ‘proficians’ (a mix of professional and technician), a withering core of working class, the ‘precariat’, the unemployed, and the detached.
He looks at the weakening of several former barriers to commodification, including the family and the education system. In the latter, he identifies the commodification of schooling and academics over the last three decades. Attitudes and policies towards the unemployed have commodified these, too. Commodification has taken place by undermining ‘regulations protecting employees through labour law, unions and collective bargaining’ (p.147). Occupations and crafts used to provide a barrier to commodification, but these too have suffered a ‘loss of autonomy … via attack from state bureaucrats, the courts, corporate tactics or divisions within the occupation’. Both state regulation and self-regulation of occupations provided barriers to commodification. Standing examines regulation, which is about control, and asks ‘for whom, by whom, over what and by what means?’. Powerful trends towards occupational licensing are recommodifying many occupations.
In chapter 8, Standing draws together some of the social and labour consequences of the construction of The Global Transformation. He calls this ‘The Horror’. This period is characterised by gross and growing inequality, gated communities of the rich, and social and economic insecurity for most. Also included is an increase in short-term jobs with long hours, loss of control, stress, increased surveillance, and the rise of the adjustment professions for damage limitation (psychiatrists, therapists, prescription drugs, social workers, and the police). The defining feature of globalization is insecurity.
This is a scholarly and erudite work, with a bibliography testifying to the breadth of reading by, and background knowledge of, the author. He also draws on his long experience working for the International Labour Organisation. It is not an easy book to read for the non-specialist. However, the work repays the effort of those who persist. The definition of terms made in chapter 1, the subtle distinctions in meaning, and the technical language make, demands on the reader. There is a wealth of detail, all illustrated with plenty of fascinating examples. At times, these can seem overwhelming, and the interesting detail of the trees can make one lose sight of where the path is leading through the wood. The goal is revealed in the last two chapters.
Standing recognises that the commodification phase of the Global Transformation, during which the building of international markets was paramount, must be followed by one where the economy must be re-embedded in society, to overcome the yawning inequality, stress, insecurity and loss of control. He argues that, from among the various forms of citizenship that are vying for supremacy, the desirable form is ‘occupational citizenship’. He then describes the sort of institutions and policies that could lead to a future society based on occupational citizenship.
The first question for any social policy reform should be ‘What sort of society do we want to be part of and help to create?’ Standing recognises that a vision is required, in which bothequality and freedom are goals. Some degree of equality is a necessary condition for freedom, because one cannot be truly free if living in poverty. Greater equality increases choice for more people. He defines ‘full freedom’ as the decommodification of people equally, but he recommends that their labour should be commodified, a good sold for a money wage. Necessary conditions for the ‘Good Society’ include good work relations (rather than good labour relations). It would also be characterised by identity and social solidarity. Civic friendship and conviviality will have a high profile. He favours a cap on incomes and wealth. He refers to Polanyi’s concept of the right to non-conformity. He proposes five Decision Principles by which to evaluate policy proposals and institutional changes (pp.296-8), including an Ecological Constraint Principle as an over-riding requirement.
It is not until page 299 that Standing introduces the idea of a Basic Income. He extols its many advantages, and defends it against potential criticisms. By breaking the link between security and labour, it provides the security to facilitate a richer working life. He favours an end to subsidies as indefensible on efficiency and equity grounds. He explores in greater depth how such a basic income scheme could end paternalistic welfare policy, where a citizen’s receipt of benefits has behaviour conditions attached. He also indicates how such a scheme would give people ‘work rights’, allowing them choices for how they use their time for contemplation, for leisure, or in socially useful ways. He recommends that there should be collective and individual Voice (associations for representation) for both recipients of care and for care-workers, and that the latter should have a collective body with both bargaining powers and lobbying functions (pp.315-21).
Throughout the book, Standing is very critical both of social democrats of the twentieth century, who were mistaken, and of libertarian paternalists of the early twenty-first century, who claim to know what is best for others, and who are dangerous. He claims that a basic income scheme can be justified as an instrument of democratization. He also indicates how a basic income scheme is part of a move towards egalitarian freedom, and how emancipating egalitarianism is needed to create the basis of occupational citizenship.
It is impossible to give the full flavour of this thoughtful and stimulating book in even a long review, but it deserves to be widely accessible and read.