Precarious life?

Written by Shift Editor Ben Lear, published online February 2012. This was the call out for articles for a short series on Precarity.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on March 7, 2013

"We must accept the idea that financial capitalism can recover and thrive without social recovery. Social life has become residual, redundant, irrelevant"

Bifo, After the Future (2011)

Precarity is a term which entered the language of European social movements from the 1980s. The concept gained particular prominence within the Euro Mayday demonstrations which saw San Precario - patron saint of precarious workers paraded through the streets of many European cities. Precarity is a concept which attempts to grapple with the fundamental changes to the relationship between capital and class we have seen since the early 1970s. These changes were precipitated by the collapse of the post-war consensus between labour and capital which saw the allocation of rising wages and improving lifestyles for many in exchange for increasing productivity and profitability in the factories of the Global North. In response to growing working class counter-power expressed through youth uprisings, the black liberation movement and struggles over the rate of exploitation within the factories we witnessed a capitalist backlash. A collection of national and international policies, changes in production technology and the dominant forms of capital accumulation and, at times, naked violence succeeded, for the most part, in re-imposing the authority of capital. These processes and policies succeeded in converting the unruly working class of the factory and university occupation into the hyper-connected, over-stressed and self-entrepreneurial subject demanded by new forms of capital accumulation. The horizons of politics has irrevocably altered, we can’t return to the forms of struggle and the demands of decades long gone. As attractive as the 1960s appears now, mired deep in the crisis of late capitalism, we can't return to this period.

Today's global political economy is characterised by hyper-exploitation for some and enforced idleness for the rest. A full employment economy has slowly slipped out of electoral manifestos and been replaced with a suite of policies to promote flexibility, profitability and a skills-based economy. Piecework and the rhythm of the factory with its routine, gruelling hours has been replaced by zero hour contracts and the faceless demands of our own smart phones. For most of us work is insecure, unrewarding and under-paid. Those few of us that remain in unions do so fully aware of the cynical nature of the bureaucracy and the inadequate tools at their disposal for protecting what remains of secure employment. Whilst a small class of freelance creatives, media moguls and financial executives have been lifted on the rising tide of this new economy, the rest of us exist in a state of work related hyper-tension. Stressed in work and stressed out of it. The collapse of all sense of a work/leisure distinction and the spectre of unemployment stalk those of us lucky enough to inhabit the offices and call centres of what remains of the European economy. For those unlucky enough to find themselves amongst the ranks of the structurally unemployed, job seeking has become a job in itself, one policed by the pressures of self-development and the discipline of the job centre. As unemployment rates rise ‘employabilty’ services continue to be a growth sector.

Precarity is a term to describe the subjective, personal experience of late capitalism. It is one perspective with which to grasp the disorientating medley of hyper-exploitation, the technology-enabled mobilisation of our emotions and desires, ever more ingenious forms of discipline and de-territorialised financial flows which define late capitalism. However we don't just experience the logic of late capitalism in our places of work, or non-work. As we are keen to stress in Shift, capitalism is a social relation which we encounter throughout our everyday lives. The neoliberal regime is based on expanding the rule of value into areas outside of commodity production alone. We can see the rhythm of capital now at work in fields as diverse as health and social care, education and environmental protection, all spheres once the preserve of the ‘social’. The processes and functions needed to reproduce populations with all the skills and amenities expected of 2012 are increasingly subordinated to the logic of capital.

The crisis of 2008 has made the impact of these, now accelerating, developments more keenly felt. As the recently unemployed are churned through privatised ‘employability’ programmes, students see their EMA (Education Maintenance allowance) cut, university fees rise and transport and housing costs increase. The two central planks of the Tories’ Plan A for austerity are budget deficit strategies working hand-in-hand with the politics of the ‘Big Society’ - a set of policies to replace slashed social services with community entrepreneurialism. Whether employed or not the services which allow us to function within this society are becoming increasingly uncertain. With the wholesale assault on the social wage many of us once enjoyed - pensions, education, welfare etc - we experience increased precarity in every aspect of our daily lives. As the crisis of capital deepens and the gap between the richest strata of society and the rest of us widens, conflicts over social reproduction will expand. Struggles over the NHS, EMA, University fees and internet piracy are all examples of the importance of reproductive struggles and areas of vibrancy and political experimentation can be seen.

We hope this series will provide a space for organisers to continue exploring how precarity affects our political practice. How does it effect our ability to organise and communicate? Is it an issue we can mobilise around or a perspective we need to adopt? Can more traditional forms of labour and community organising be rethought for the current period? We are critical of those that call for a return to the Fordist period. We believe we can’t go back. Even if we wanted a full employment society, changes in production and technology, the organisation and function of the state and the labour movement as well as environmental devastation are unlikely to permit it. If we can’t go back then we need to be developing new concepts and new demands. This perspective will put us into conflict with all those arguing for the continuation of a society built on labour and debt but may also open up exciting new spaces and alliances.

Shift are excited to announce the beginning of this new series on precarity. This is a new area of discussion for Shift and we hope to use it to build links between various parts of the anti-capitalist movement here in the UK. There is an obvious disconnect between activist scenes, single issue campaigns, labour orientated organisers and those of us struggling to devise forms of political action suitable for the present outside of existing political vehichles. It is our hope that the articles, interviews and reviews published in this series can start bringing together these various perspectives in a productive manner. The articles already commissioned for this series are, we hope, just the start and we encourage submissions of article proposals to continue and develop these conversations...

Ben Lear is an editor of Shift Magazine and contributing author to 'Occupy Everything! Reflections on why it’s kicking off everywhere' published this year by Minor Composition. His tweets can be found at @Ben_In_Manc