Monday, June 27, 2005
In November 1999, the colonial power of the global north over the global south was dramatically thrown back onto the table of popular politics in the consciousness of citizens in the metropolises of the north. It's easy to take an ironic pleasure in the fact that the facade of a generation's apathy was shattered by anarchists, NGO's, environmentalists and Trade Unionists in what was ubiquitously termed the 'teamster and turtle' alliance amidst barricades in Seattle during the World Trade Organisation's talks there. Seattle after all is the city that gave us such emblematic brands of the 'new economy' such as Microsoft and Starbucks, and also provided much of the soundtrack to the apathy of Generation X in bands like Nirvana and the rest of the grunge wave. For the first time perhaps since the covert aggression of the United States against the Sandanista regime in Nicaruga a generation was awakened to radicalism through geo-political issues complementing their own frustration with the colonisation of their own lives through brand culture and the identities they were forced to live up to. After Seattle, there was what as termed the "Seattle effect" as protests engulfed major institutional meetings such as the IMF meetings in Prague, the EU Summit in Nice, the IMF again in Washington NAFTA in Quebec and in the most dramatic exposition of the limits of such sieges at the G8 Summit in Genoa. While the western media only came to grips with opposition to globalisation when western kids took it on over barricades in Seattle, there has been three decades of struggle against it in the Global south perhaps best exemplified to this generation by the Chiapas uprising or more recently the popular revolt in Argentina.
The Zapatista’s now virtually exercise a monopoly as the symbolic manifestation of struggles in the global south against globalisation. While academics dispute the terminology of globalisation and what it connotes in terms of social organization, the Zapatista’s are poetically clear: “they talk to us about globalisation and we realize that this is what they call this absurd order, where there is only one country - the country of money. Where the frontiers will disappear, not as a result of brotherhood, but through the hemorrhage that fattens the powerful who have no nation. ” Aside from the literary flourishes, one thing is clear from the globalisation process, as Susan George as pointed out the poor are developing the rich due to a neo-colonial weighting of power in global institutions. The hinge or lever upon which this power exerts itself is in the international management of debt.
Through whatever ideological window theorists look there is a common appreciation of globalisation as a triumphant form of capitalism. One that harks back to the classical liberalism of Adam Smith while at the same time pushing beyond the limits of previous forms of capitalism towards a post-modernisation of the economy through the “informatization of production” as Negri and Hardt claim, leading to the sort of 'compression of time and space" pointed out by Harvey. Alongside this succinct idea of globalisation, there is the common perception that the globalisation process arises as the latest culmination of a development discourse centred on economic growth as the chief measurement of success. The PR departments of neo-liberalism like to use the idea of the creation of ‘global village’ as an alternative to the creation of what could alternatively be termed the manufacturing of new enclosures. Classically Marx described how "the tendancy to create the world market is directly given in the concept itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome. " The process of globalisation is one of handing over areas of life previously exempt to the market through WTO lead agreements like Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights and the General Agreement On Trade and Services. Entailed in this is the sidelining of the nation state as a dominant force in the management of economies and the increased prominence of bodies transcending national boundaries be they either bodies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the WTO or indeed trans-national corporations.
Previously, when Lenin described Imperialism as the highest form of capitalism, he was speaking of the subjection of nations by the dominant militaristic states. Historically, the emergence of the Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and the World Bank occurred in the post World War Two period of decolonisation and the emergence of the Cold War. In this sense the formations of the institutions exemplify how capitalism as a social relationship can respond to struggle against it by altering its form. Instead of direct colonial rule, we now have a rather awkward and hidden rule over the global south whereby colonial power is instituted in a rather indirect post-modern fashion. In an 1980’s Treasury Report an official admitted that the “US was instrumental in shaping the structure and mission of the World Bank along Western Market lines...for the emergence of a corporate entity with weighted voting...as a charter member and major share holder in the World Bank, the US secured the sole right to a permanent seat on the board of directors. ”
In one sense what one can see here is illumination of myth of development, it is perhaps safer to speak of old colonial masters seeking new reigns of control in the wake of independence struggles. In a similar fashion, given that voting is weighted according to the size of economies the G7 countries control 47% of the votes in the International Monetary Fund. While theoretically the WTO can claim to operate on the basis of one country one vote, decisions are contingent on the consensus of one of the dominant quads, while the notorious Green Room negotiations exclude developing countries. On the Washington connection to fascism in the global south Chomsky has described how “whatever the attitudes of the US Leadership towards freedom at home...systematic polices to the third world countries make it evident that the alleged commitment to democracy and human rights is mere rhetoric, directly contrary to actual policy. The operative principle has been and remains economic freedom, meaning freedom for US business to invest, sell and repatriate profits. ” Much as Trumann viewed the Marshall Plan in Europe as means of averting the consolidation of communism, development ideology was used to consolidate US influence in the Global South.
It is now necessary to reflect on how the debt crisis hanging over from the development era acts as the pivotal point of this new form of colonial dominance. An OECD report describes how between 1982 and 1990 flows of capital going to developing countries amounted to $927 billion, yet in the same period of time $1,345 billion flowed from the south to the north, what Susan George points out to be the astonishing equivalent of six Marshall plans . Such extraordinary figures of debt facilitate the exercise of mechanism’s of control and discipline over populations in the global south in the interests of corporations repatriating profits to the north through several methods. In the first place, much of this debt has been taken on by elites in the south which have encountered huge resistance within their own territories. Even before the colonial break ups, one of the first major debt packages from the World Bank was to the Netherlands in 1947 as they were putting down an independence rising in Indonesia with 100,000 troops, this pattern of indirectly funding the policing of the south through corrupt and murderous regimes carries past the decolonizing high point of 1960 to the organisation today. It is clear that such levels of debt then incurred by such regimes facilitate the imposition of Structural Adjustment Packages by the IMF when they reach crisis point. In the rest of this essay I will look at the use of debt as a mechanism of control in facilitating the policing of the global south in the interests of the neo-colonial ambitions of western economic interests, how debt is used as an excuse to create new enclosures and force populations to abandon traditional subsistence based economics and finally to impose neo-liberal austerity on populations of subjected countries.
The history of the World Bank is peppered with the financing of regimes which suppress brutally the populations subject to them in the interests of western economic interests. From a chronology provided by Eric Touissant, it is quite telling just how selectively the Bank has made political judgements in the extension of loans. Through out the 1960’s the Bank financed the apartheid regime in South Africa despite various rulings from the United Nations, and despite killing 500,000 people it also extended loans to the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Most telling in this litany is the Bank’s 1964 refusal to provide loans to the democratic Goulart government of Brazil and then the manner it rushed in to give loans to a military coup. There was a similar experience in Chile, where money was extended to the Pinochet regime after the murderous coup against the progressive Allendian regime’s “Chilean road to socialism” which was refused aid. As part of the climate of the Cold War the extension of finance as a means of determining what regimes are acceptable to western colonial economic interest becomes obvious from the Chilean example.
For the establishment at the time the possibility of a social democratic route to socialism was a nerve wracking thought, one which could spread to other areas of interest in the hemisphere. The moves to nationalise the American Anaconda Copper company which controlled the Chilean mine industry, caused obvious discomfort to American elites, who through the CIA engaged in political subversion on the ground and through financial institutions vied to “make the economy scream. ” The Pinochet regime emerged, with its programme of neo-liberal shock therapy courtesy of the Chicago Boy. Which opened up and made the economy safe for American economic elites through wide scale privatisation and a state downgraded to its brute repressive form - World Bank financing of the regime renewed. When the phantasm of the ’economic miracle’ collapsed amidst a global depression in 1982, the IMF stepped in to further impose austerity, ironically despite Freidmann influenced policies, when major financial institutions were at risk their debts were socialised in a bizarre newspeak socialism for the rich. In the overall context of things it is worth noting that a United Nations Development Programme describes how high arms spenders receive two and a half times more aid per capita than those who spent less on weaponry to police their subject populations on behalf of global economic elites.
Eduardo Galeano, a 1980’s version of Marcos tore away at the “model of life in the consumer society which these days is imposed as a model at the universal level. ” If the logic of the consumer society is the commodification of elements of society that could previously be considered public goods, then it is once again obvious from a chronology of World Bank activity that it favours those projects which run against the prior economics values of populations in the global south, in short it supports a western model of development along industrial capitalist lines. The 1964 Green Revolution launched on the back of a request from India for food aid is the obvious pointer for this discussion in a historical perspective, a move which led to the industrialisation of agriculture and the ridiculous shift to cash crops. As Shiva has described “export oriented agriculture has reduced food security by encouraging a shift from small scale, sustainable production to large scale, non-sustainable industrial production. It also brings changes in ownership over natural resources and means of production, from small autonomous producers/owners to large corporate and commercial interests. ” Elsewhere Cleaver has described how the project of the Green revolution was to destroy peasant society and undercut dissent towards neo-colonial domination . The displacement of 220,000 people after the Upper Krishna dam led to a drop in their incomes of 50% as they were forced into urbanised patterns of work in accordance with a capitalist mode of development. More recently the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights overseen by the WTO encapsulate the neo-colonial creation of new enclosures. Shiva once again describes the dangers of the application of market logic to agriculture in the form of bio-piracy: “two thirds of people in the south depend on free access to biodiversity for their livelihoods and needs. Seventy percent of seed in India is saved or shared farmers seed; seventy percent of healing is based on indigenous medicine using local plants. ”
It may sound flippant, but it is usually quite easy spot countries where the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Packages are at work: they are the ones where populations are most visibly mobilised in street combat with the repressive arms of their respective states. From the past few years the examples are obvious, from the popular uprising against austerity of the IMF in Argentina in December, 2001 and the battle against water privatisation in Bolivia in Cochabamba in the same year. There is quite an obvious reason for these popular revolts, the SAP’s imposed by the IMF wreck havoc on the lives of the populations subjected to them in order to pay back World Bank loans. In Argentina the ‘Washington Consensus’ benefited few apart from the country’s economic elites, unemployment had soared to over 30% in 2000 and the overnight devaluation of the Peso virtually wiped out an entire social class. The sly privatisation of water delivery mechenisms in Cochabamba only benefited the US Bechtal corporation, but has for many symbolised the slash and burn policies of the IMF which tear away at safeguards states may provide their citizens such as public welfare systems in order to open their service provision up to the market. During the Korean Crisis one US Trade Representative could confirm that “the Korea stabilisation package negotiated with the IMF..should help open and expand competition in Korea by creating a more market driven economy...if it continues on the path of reform there will be important benefits not only for Korea but also for the United States. ”
It is quite clear that debt has been used by capital as a method of discipline and control over populations of the global south: facilitating the policing of political options open to populations and ensuring the political loyalty of regimes during the Cold War. That this can be understood in an imperialist framework is easy, if one is given to an analysis of the Bretton Woods institutions as emerging in the period of decolonization in order to facilitate the continued colonial ambitions of economic elites in the west.
We are currently living in a period where the dominant ideological vision is the aggressive desire for a complete surrender to the free market. As Susan George has noted this rise of neo-liberalism which first asserted itself as an experiment in the failed economic miracle of Chile under the Pinochet regime is very surprising given that “In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today's standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage or sent off to the insane asylum. ” Nonetheless, since the collapse of Keynesian economics, amidst the imposition of austerity on debtor countries after the 1982 Crash and the dismantling of the welfare state heralded by Regan and Thatcher in the west, there can be no doubt that if there is one historical project of our time it is that of creating new enclosures economically. Where aspects of life which were once under public control and exempt from market competition are now forced into private hands through the application of pressure from institutions like the World Trade Organization which blaze the legislative path for commodifaction initiatives like the Trade Related Intellectual property Rights and the General Agreement On Trades and Services. That economic growth along such lines entails huge social decline is obvious to anyone with a smattering of current affairs.
As Bourdieu notes there is the abandonment of the tradition of dissent among radical intellectuals. While the decentring discourse of post-modernity has closed the possibility it may have opened up for radical social change in its subversion of the grounds for its own critique, those still maintaining a radical critique echo the one sided mistakes of the Frankfurt School in weighing up the power of capital, but never looking to the counter power from below. Those few writers who do hold up the potential for radical transformation from below tend to be linked to social movements, and illuminate a path academics are slow to take up obsessed with a managerial vision of the world. A piece of movement propaganda from the AdBsuters’ collective jibes that “economists need to learn to subtract” if they are to maintain a role in future sociological anaylsis. A joke maybe, but the adbust points to serious need to attack the idea of economic growth and development both as an ideology and as a method wedded to capitalist modes of production at the expense of the autonomy of those who have currently developed methods of subsistence relatively free of the gargantuan interference of debt and corporations we now associate with the free market. As Reuss describes economists and neo-liberal apologists are engaged in rather obtuse peddling of miracles and amnesia. To uncover how economic growth can be equated with social decline we are required to delve into the memory hole of history and unearth some statistical contradictions, buried social realities and the experiences of those who are the victims of economic growth.
Rightwing Think Tanks globally focus on the experiences of Chile as a laboratory test for their free market ideologies. After the coup against the social democrat Allende, the economic shock therapy of the Chicago School Boys led to the worst recession in the country since the 1930’s. Due to hardcore privatization all but 27 of 507 state enterprises were handed over to the private sector. In 76 the economy began to recover, and entered into the ‘economic miracle’ growing 6.6 percent a year. Of course here is where economists need to learn to subtract, a boom following on from an earlier recession is only recovering lost ground on a net analysis, in reality Chile actually had the second worst growth rate in Latin America between 1975 and 1980 and then there was the disaster of the 1982 recession. When society is just measured as a labour cost some obvious social decline escapes the analysis of economists obsessed with their mantra of “all else being equal.” By 1989, Chile had a poverty rate of 41.2%, while shanty towns grew at an extraordinary rate. Just before the sabotaging of the Allende regime the daily diet of the poorest 40% of the population was 2,019 calories, twenty years later it was down to 1,629. These are of course just statistical pointers, there can be no statistics for the loss of dignity experienced by those who struggled for a better vision of how society could be run only to be brutalized by the Pinochet regime because they violated the economic ambitions of the United States. While Chile heralded the pattern of social decline on the back of neo-liberal growth policies, the pattern the Chilean tale tells is typical of the social decline experienced under such austerity not to mention the elimination or neutralization of traditional means of solidarity and self-protection such political parties and trade unions.
With the obvious failure of the development project in the eighties and its clear harnessing to projects for neo-colonial expansion, a wider critique of the ideology of development itself has been increasingly mooted. Most of these analysis’s are gaining increased prominence due to the increasing visibility of struggles in the global south. Magid Rahnena describes the impact of development and its desire for economic growth using AIDs as a metaphor. She describes vernacular societies, which exhibit the same sort of pre-capitalist structures of a moral economy envisaged in the west prior to primitive capital accumulation: “they have a certain organic consistency in other words their structures are a living tissue of social and cultural relations defining the activities of their members and protecting them against possible dangers…it is the tissue of human solidarities that preserves the communities immune system. ” Shiva has become the best known critic of the effects of this form of capitalist development in western circles given her affinity to Indian social movements. Her critique of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights and the manner in which development has foisted an industrial model of agriculture on populations cuts to the contradictions in the idea that economic growth equates with social progress: “The rich diversity and sustainable systems of food production have been destroyed in the name of increasing food production. However, with the destruction of diversity, rich sources of nutrition disappear. When measured in terms of nutrition per acre, and from the perspective of biodiversity, the so-called “high yields” of industrial agriculture do not imply more production of food and nutrition. ” In 2000, the World Bank commissioned an independent study “Dams and Development” into major hydro electric dam projects which exemplify the trend of development on an industrial capital model. According to ‘The Ecologist’ magazine this study: “provides stark evidence that the world’s 45,000 large dams – which block over half the world’s rivers – have been failed experiments. They have failed to produce as much electricity and water, or control as much flood damage, as their backers claim…They have made up to 80 million people homeless, and their benefits have largely gone to the urban well-off not the rural poor they displace” and how “their effects on eco-systems have been disastrous ”.
Alex Dupey is correct to state that the 'postmodernist trend seeks to replace the central concept of class in the analysis of capitalism. ' Neo-liberalism as a postmodern condition with out doubt has undermined many of the traditional organizations of the working class in the north through breaking up heavy industries in the wake of the struggles of the sixties and seventies and exporting these to the south, leaving us with a heavily non-unionized services sector. Amidst the debate on globalisation as Dash has pointed out, some significant questions arise for those who place themselves on the left, these questions revolve around the manner in which neo-liberalism has reshaped class composition, and the manner in which it has closed many of the ‘opt outs’ movements could previously adopt as a means of contesting power. As Negri asserts, post-modernism in itself has now become both the language and a condition of power. For this reason, the term precarity which has been taken up by some social movements in the global north provides a decent interpretable framework for the global class re-composition neo-liberalism has bred through it's imposition of flexiploitation. Some have defined this "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 definition permits us to overcome the dichotomies of public/private and production/reproduction and to recognize the interconnections between the social and the economic. ” The debate on precarity is one that is ongoing in the parts of the new social movements, and it is possible to expose how economic growth within a neo-liberal framework has equated to a large degree with social decline using this debate as a framework. The framework is most useful because unlike much analysis in development studies and on the left it does not make the mistake of viewing neo-liberal globalization as a practice whereby northern states just subject southern states, thereby regurgitating the lexicon of national liberation struggles but it provides a lexicon where we can understand neo-liberalism as the imposition of a new work discipline on the multitudes in the metropolises of both the north and south.
In any analysis of how social decline equates with economic growth is important to escape the very statistical language economists speak while recognizing the contradictions within it. EP Thompson exposes the myth of economic growth as being contingent with social advancement in his analysis of the industrial revolution, one of the first serious instances of development, describing its effects on traditional communities: “the loss of status and above all independence for the worker, his reduction to total dependence on the master’s instruments of production; the partiality of the law; the disruption of the traditional family economy; the discipline, monotony, hours and traditions of work; loss of leisure and amenities; the reduction of man to the status of an instrument. ” For economic growth to agree according to the neo-liberalistas, we need to become flexible. The results of this flexibility is illustrated best by El Alto in Bolivia: “Bolivians have become vulnerable to economic shock and displacement especially the rural poor. As a result a demographic revolution is bringing hundreds of thousands from isolated peasant communities to expansive slums like El Alto. With its structural unemployment, incredible population growth, with sprawling miles of substandard housing and incredible social misery, el Alto may represent the near future of Latin American urban life, the era of the mega slum. ”
The flexibility imposed by neo-liberalism as a key requirement for economic growth leads to social decline north and south. With a post-modernisation of the economy, due to technical mobility there is increased scope for transnational corporations to side-line traditional protections against exploitation in society. On a global level, this was represented by a confidential report which seems to confirm much of Susan George's adoption of character in the Lugano Report. The world banks' chief economist Larry Summers called for the exporting of northern polluting industries to the global south describing how: "There are no limits on the planet's capacity for absorption likely to hold us back in the foreseeable future...in my view the economic logic of disposing toxic waste in low income countries is impeccable. " At the same time the creation of new enclosures through TRIP’s and GATS places populations in a precarious position where there is no guarantee of security apart from what they can provide for themselves through work for transnationals. On a global level, this provides an insecure work force which is exemplified by the nightmares of sweat shops and examples such as Nike’s dismissal of 447 of 6,000 workers in Vietnam for engaging in activities to secure a monthly minimum wage of $47. Equally, the increased mobility of capital necessitates a mobility of labour, with social security stripped increasingly there is a labour force unsure of its rights as the case of Brazilian cleaners in Dublin a few years ago raised: “the Brazialians were told that these extremely harsh and exhausting conditions were the way things were in Ireland. They knew no better. They came from a country with no social welfare and little protection for workers. ” More recently the GAMA workers highlight the pattern, amidst the economic growth of the Celtic Tiger which if one is to accept Kieran Allen’s work has benefited few..
With such swathes of the population so clearly absent from the benefits of economic growth, perhaps the biggest indictment of the ideology is the windows towards autonomy from market led growth which parts of society have developed in order to deal with the fallacies of development. Some of the most obvious examples of these are the “shrimp satyagraha" non-violent daily direct action against bio-piracy in India which take seeds or the ‘stolen harvest’ back out of the market and into the commons. Something else which springs to minds is the system of bartering developed to cope with the entrenched failure of the free market in Argentina. With economic growth along capitalist lines benefiting such a small fraction of the global population, the biggest indictment of the social decline prevalent under neo-liberalism is the struggles of the multitudes against it.
“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.
About Soundtracksforthem specialises in iconoclastic takes on culture, politics, and more shite from the underbelly of your keyboard. A still-born group blog with a recent surge of different contributers but mainly maintained by James R. Big up all the contributers and posse regardless of churn out rate: Kyle Browne, Reeuq, Cogsy, Chief, X-ie phader/Krossie, Howard Devoto, Dara, Ronan and Mark Furlong. Send your wishes and aspirations to antropheatgmail.com
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