Monday, June 27, 2005
“We are the precarious, the flexible the temporary, the mobile. We’re the people that live on a tightrope, in a precarious balance, we’re the restructured and the outsourced, those who lack a stable job, and those who are over exploited; those who pay a mortgage or a rent that strangles us. We’re forced to buy and sell our ability to love and care. We’re just like you contortionists of flexibility ”
Over the past few years sections of a diverse movement that codifies itself around large set piece spectacles of confrontation with the state at symbolic sites of neo-liberal hegemony and power has shifted the focus of its analysis and activity away from the object of neo-liberal power towards the subjects of that power and its struggles. The result has been the rising popularity of ‘precarity’ as an organisational and discursive theme among radical elements of the social movement in the past 18 months. Already there have been several precarity forums in European cities aimed at etching out a feel for the identities shaped by this shared experience of the demands of neo-liberal flexibility. There have also been successive years of Euromayday parades across Europe calling for ‘flexicurity’ which have attracted thousands. Part of this perhaps can be explained by the demographic of the movement. When a sizeably young anti-capitalist movement suddenly realises that ’summit hopping’ will not change a social relationship globally or locally, it quickly begins to eye itself up within that relationship, preferring to engage in forms of activism that are more closely related to it’s own everyday territorial identities. To be tabloid for a second, perhaps one can speak of a move away from window breaking at MacDonald's to a more traditional desire to organise on the MacJob. In this essay I will sketch the origins of this focus and some of the ideas coming from it, before going on to use the paradigm to briefly examine the position of young workers facing issues of inequality under neo-liberalism. Finally, I will conclude by offering a commentary on the value of the "precarity" debate.
San Precario We Invoke Thee
High theorists have defined precarity "as a juncture of material and symbolic conditions which determine an uncertainty with respect to the sustained access to the resources essential to the development of one’s life. " This living on the margins arises from a restructuring of work that has taken place under neo-liberalism, especially in the technologically advanced countries of the west where there has been a shift away from traditional industries towards the tertiary sector, with much of the manufacturing industries shifted to the global south as a response to waves of struggles in the 60‘s and ‘70‘s . Much of the precarity analysis rests entirely on a theoretical groundwork broken years before in discussions on the left of the Italian Communist Party, and then during the seventies in the Italian extra-parliamentary left. Labour once regulated by Taylorism/fordism and work discipline at the point of production is now regulated by control in society, in 'which mechanisms of command become ever more "democratic" ever more immanent to the social field. ' The diffusion of the factory into society, how society itself became a factory was something raised first by autonomist marxist theorists like Tronti and Bologna, while Maria Rosa Della Costa provided a feminist bent which defined domestic work as the production of labour power. More recently, Naomi Klein has articulated the immaterial production of capital in how corporations co-opt and codify lifestyles into brands. In an interview given in Mark Achbar's "The Corporation" she emphasises the more 'imperialist ambition of the brand.' Rather than us inviting it into our lives through consumerism, it seeks to colonise parts of our lives which previously could have been considered part of the commons. Negri and Hardt in their recycling of the original autonomism describe how "in the post modernisation of the global economy, the creation of wealth tends ever more toward what we will call biopolitical production, the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest in one another. " The post-modernisation of the economy, also brings with it a by-passing of the state by corporations, the undermining of traditional welfare rights and of course a workforce kept particularly on its toes due to the threat of a highly mobile technologically charged capitalism which can skip country at will. Overall this creates a condition of instability for those outside of power. If it is taken that there is a re-composition of the economy, then it seems obvious that there has been a recomposition of class along post-modern lines too; a thought leading movement based theorists such as Alex Foti of the Italian Chainworkers movement to define precarity more simply as "a generalised condition searching for a radical transeuropean subject. " It is to elements of this radical transeuropean subject that we now turn.
Douglas Coupland coined the achingly appropriate term ‘McJob’ for the monotonous dead end short-term employment that so much of his Generation X fell into and we now take for granted. He presented the McJob as a slacker lifestyle choice that facilitated an escape from the cage of traditional career choices allowing us to define ourselves as something other than our job descriptions that’d see us all going the Willy Loman way. As a result he certainly fell for the worst excesses of post-modernity as a method taken on by power and capital to impose a frightening new method of work discipline and organization on us.
The Irish Labour Market Review of 2004 describes how “The market services sector now employs almost 830,000, and accounts for 45% of total employment. This is almost six times the number employed in the multinational industrial sector. There is significant room for further employment growth in the services sector, given that the services sector share of the Irish economy is smaller than for any other EU-15 member state. ” Since the rise of the Celtic Tiger, there has been an increase in casualisation of work practices in areas of the service sector along American lines. Some of this can be put down to the influence of multinational corporations importing employment practices to Ireland, at the behest of the Irish State which encourages the use of the most precarious form of employment in migrant labour on work permits held by the employer.
Casualisation in one sense promotes a sense of insecurity in the individual worker. At a national level the dismantling of the welfare state, and the privatization of basic services means that there is an increased reliance on private investment to ensure access to services such as healthcare and pensions. Then of course this is compounded by the crisis in the housing sector . With an inability to plan ahead for the future and the experience of work on a subsistence level, those in casualised labour in the neo-liberal economy are at a loss when it comes to accessing such services leading some to speak of a feminization of work as a whole. Where in the past it was previously women who were insecure in work, due to the influences of the church or dependent on their husbands for financial imbursement as society ignored the productive value of domestic labour, now there is an insecurity prevalent which does not have a gender bias. In another classical sense the use of part-time worker’s and short term contracts can be considered an internalization of the reserve army of labour within corporations. With the erosion of the welfare state and dole re-structuring it is possible to speak of the creation of a “social workhouse ” where there are few benefit entitlements those that exist, are increasingly privatized.
Kieran Allen notes that through social partnership “the union leaders have accepted that a degree of ‘atypical employment’ is not only necessary but has a vague progressive quality. ” This one sided emphasis on the positive aspect of flexi-work defined the press and popular rhetoric that ushered in the new economy Europe wide in the mid-nineties. There is as well the ever present slight of hand that tries to cover up the antagonism in the employee/employer relationship by certain elements of academia who try to define the concept of working class out of existence every time new management structures and technologies are used in the economy, something Braverman tackled in his research on the degradation of work. In terms of the new economy, the Kolinko Collective offer a devastating first hand analysis of the call centre experience that leaves most academic research on the subject dead.
Meanwhile, the overall effect of social partnership has been to cause a shift in model in the union movement away from organization in the workplace towards a service model which does little to organise in ‘non-union’ companies and has an increasingly poor record in areas where they are organised. One result of this is that there is a generation of workers emerging with little if any experience of the traditional labour movement, resulting in their ill-equipment when it comes to knowing their rights leaving them prey to the employer . Dependent on their own class positioning often young workers can negotiate their way out of precarious labour, which often as not is a transitional phase during the move from part-time work during education to full time employment. However, this still leaves us with the reality of an increased use of short term contracts throughout the economy, and parts of the population who do not have have the access to the cultural capital to negotiate an escape from the ‘macjobs’ of the metropolises.
The formation of a culture of flexiploitation as some have termed it has been traced in the movement based debates around the new economy of neo-liberalism as a response to the waves of struggles of a previous generation of workers, and specifically the rebellion of the mass worker. Short term contracts and the end of a job for life is seen as a demobilizing strategy on behalf of capital which breaks up old industrial bastions of unionism and ensures to one degree that they can not be revived. In another sense, the creation of the flexi-worker is a response to the rejection of work by youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In Empire, Negri describes how "'Dropping out' is really a poor conception of what was going on in Haight Ashbury and across the United States in the 1960's. The two essential operations were the refusal of the disciplinary regime and the experimentation with new forms of productivity. " So the creation of the flexi-worker can be seen as an attempt to accommodate and harness the desires of young workers back into an economical function. Much of the debate around precarity creates a devision between ‘chainworkers’ and ‘brainworkers.’ “Chain workers” are those employed in heavily taylorised positions in retail, franchises and so on. “Brainworkers” are those who are forced to commodify creative talents and skills assumed over a patch work quilt of short term employment such as design, technical skills and emotion in the service of industry.
When sections of a movement begin to generalise about the nature of work in the new economy with much of the analysis arising from extrapolation on their own experiences in the economy there are advantages and disadvantages. For a start, it is healthy to see a shift away from the sort of activity that is dependent upon mobilizing for the next big event towards an attempt to formulate working strategies of organization in the workplace. In terms of Empire’s contribution, there are flaws in an approach that reeks of all the worst facets of orthodox Marxism in an overly materialistic take which will justify the mistakes of previous movements by viewing strategies as the natural outcome of a particular historical juncture. This sort of desire to re-invent the wheel can lead to a refusal to look at movements that previously organized the exact sectors which the precarity theorists focus on. For instance the Industrial Workers of the World had much success in organizing women, migrants and casual workers in the states at the start of the last century in extremely difficult circumstances.
On the positive side, the debate offers a generation of activists the opportunity to explore a political language of struggle based on their own identities rather than having to carry the baggage of an awkwardly archaic language of class struggle with them, that in the long run only isolates them from the people they seek to organise. The application of organizing skills which have developed out of the anti-globalisation period such as Reclaim The Streets, the use of subvertisements which take on directly the logic of capitalism can only be a positive addition in terms of using an organizational vocabulary and method which reflects the network model of capitalism and can speak to a generation apathetic and distrustful of mainstream politics.
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