The Precariat and the Cuts: Reconstructing Autonomy
Who are the precariat? Are we, on the receiving end of this crisis and these cuts, the precariat?
The debate on the precariat is important for understanding the background to the cuts and the crisis, and in reconstructing an alternative. The debate has its own vocabulary. There are a number of overlapping terms: 'precarious', referring to unstable forms of employment and life, 'precarity', a broader term for the condition of being precarious treated as a particular characteristic of the current economy, 'precariat' as a noun for the strata of people who live or work precariously (by analogy with the proletariat), and 'precariousness' for a broader sense of existential vulnerability. These ideas first emerged in Italian social movements before spreading elsewhere (Federici, 2006), and are attributed to an 'epochal recomposition of capital and labor' (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 177). Today, I would suggest they are of great use in making sense of and responding to the crisis.
Precarity should here be viewed from two angles. Precarity simultaneously refers to the 'non-self-determined insecurity of all areas of life and work', and to the possible emergence of new forms of resistance by the precariat (Raunig, 2004). It exists on a pole between anxiety and fear on the one hand, and its own status as frightening to the dominant order on the other. Raunig (2007) argues that the precariat is different from the proletariat in that it cannot be a unified class, linked to 'molar and linear concepts of revolution'. It is a term for the 'new social subject' emerging from self-activity in this setting (Shukaitis, 2006). It is connected to a diffusion of subjects of revolt. The emergence of struggle from students specifically, parallels earlier accounts which view the emergence of such new bases of struggle as connected to the decline of older agents of rebellion. Students, political dissidents, marginal poor people, oppressed minorities and subcultures become the site of rebellion (Marcuse, 1969). The concept of the precariat attempts to join together such groups, emphasising continuities as well as differences with the proletariat.
Precarity and the Neoliberal Economy
As a negative phenomenon, precarity involves conditions which create uncertainty about sustained access to resources needed for life or personal development (Precarias, 2004). This is an effect of dependence on capitalism: 'life becomes contingent on capital and therefore precarious', with lives rendered precarious because they are treated as equivalent and therefore superfluous and dispensable (Mitropoulos, 2005). Precarity involves an experience of restless movement between different temporalities and speeds, creating the paradigmatic position, "I don't have the time" (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). It involves a 'caesura' or split, which 'severs labour' and culture from the 'preceding historical composition of production', possibly connected to the rise of networks both in capitalism and its opponents (van Veen, 2010). Precarity induces fear in those subjected to it, which is used as a means of control by bosses. This fear is used as a 'mode of domination... aimed at forcing workers into submission, into acceptance of exploitation' (Bourdieu, 1998: 85). This fear is concentrated on the 'hell of the absence of guarantees' (Guattari and Negri, 1990: 76), the risk of ruin through the lack of social security.
The conditions for precarity in this sense come from the neoliberal onslaught of the 1980s onwards, made possible by global outsourcing, just-in-time production and communication networks (Berardi, 2007: 75-7; Virno, 2004: 56-9). Precarization, the rise of precarious work, is a 'neoliberal instrument of governance' which uses social insecurity, or the active 'introduction of a lack of security', as a means to force people to submit or conform to standards of normality (Lorey, 2010). Even when someone is not precarious, awareness of the risk of precarity is ever-present (Brophy and de Peuter, 1998: 183). In many respects, it is thus a repetition of a long pattern of producing artificial scarcity as a means to force people to work and submit (McMarvill and Los Ricos, n.d.).
It is based on new forms of subordination. Berardi argues that it involves the dissolution of the worker as active productive agent or labour-power, with labour instead bought and sold as discrete packets of time. The wage no longer covers the full range of economic needs of a worker, but only the price of each packet (2009: 32, 38). According to precarity activist Alex Foti, precarity is 'being unable to plan one's time' because of being on call, on a timeframe 'determined by external forces' (cited Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). The precariat is to post-industrial society what the proletariat is to industrial society (Foti, cited in Raunig 2007).
It should be added that precarity is not exclusively economic, but infiltrates wide spheres of everyday life. The feeling of being precariously situated can also come from a wide range of experiences producing a general feeling of unease, from work models and financial instability to "terrorism" and ecological crisis (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.).
The current wave of cuts will increase precarity if they succeed, but precarity is already widespread in Britain, and has been since the 1980s. Cuts are sometimes analysed as accumulation-by-dispossession or 'enclosure', both terms which referred originally to practices such as land grabs. These concepts suggest there is a field of 'the commons', like the common land of pre-Enclosures Britain, which the system periodically tries to 'enclose' or grab, stealing it from people (dispossession) so as to claim it as profit or use it to generate profit (accumulation). In this case, however, there are difficulties owing to the relationship of the state to many of the 'commons' in question. One of the dangers of struggles around cuts is of a return to an emphasis on traditional left-right struggles, neglecting the independent dimension of the struggle between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian social forms. It is thus important to emphasise, both that these 'commons' were won in struggle, and that they can be recomposed in non-state forms.
Precarity can be viewed as an attack on the 'social wage' of the precariat. As well as a specific work wage, workers have a 'social wage', or the total of things paid and given by different social institutions. Benefit payments, easily available credit, health services and free education are all part of the 'social wage'. Cutting benefits or welfare provision thus amount to cutting the social wage, and are similar to a boss cutting workers' wages. Neoliberalism has involved cumulative assaults on the social wage, and the 'social rights' gained through intense struggle in many countries (Fantone, 2006). Cuts should thus be viewed as part of a general downward pressure on living conditions of the poorer and more marginal sections of the population.
Precarity vs Fordism
Precarity is usually defined in contrast to the previous period, Fordism. Precarity is, in a classic definition, 'the labor conditions that arose after the transition from life-long, stable jobs common in industrial capitalist and welfare-state economies, to temporary, insecure, low-paying jobs emerging with the globalization of the service and financial economy' (Casas-Cortes and Cobarrubias, 2007: 115). Berardi argues that it stands for the area of work without fixed rules (2009: 31). Precarity is distinguished from the earlier phase of capitalism, up to the mid-1970s in Britain and until about 2000 in parts of Europe, in which the state was heavily involved in the regulation of the economy, there was an expansive welfare state covering the more socially-included sections of the population, the economy was managed by a tripartite alliance of capitalists, statists and labour leaders, and the economy functioned mainly through full-time, regular-hours jobs-for-life which paid a family wage (enough to sustain a decent standard of living for the worker and several dependents, and hence compatible with nuclear families in which women did not work). This is sometimes referred to as 'Fordism' (as an extension of the organised reproduction of productive labour initiated by the Ford company in America), 'corporatism' (because of the integrated or 'corporate' nature of state-capital-labour relations) or 'organised capitalism' (because the state organised the reproduction of the conditions for capital accumulation, such as providing education, healthcare, roads etc). Discussions of precarity usually begin by contrasting it to this earlier period (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 180).
While this kind of arrangement has disappeared from the 1980s onwards in Britain, it remains the reference-point for how most people seem to think about work. Those of us growing up in precarity are thus viewed by our parents' generation as underperforming (because we haven't got the full-time jobs-for-life they expected we'd get), and on the other hand, if our parents were middle- or included-working-class (and therefore not marginal themselves), they often have the benefits of much greater job stability, social welfare and higher wages than we have (hence a lot of the currently younger generations end up living with our parents for longer than they did, or relying on them financially). In Italy, Fantone (2006) argues that many members of the precarious generation have been shielded from the worst excesses of marginality mainly through the help of their families, drawing on the resources which had been distributed to older generations.
Of course there are also exceptions, because Fordism was never really all-inclusive. It was based on a split between a small number of highly skilled, socially included workers and a much larger layer of atomised workers (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Things were a lot more difficult for migrants, for people from extremely poor backgrounds, and for single women than the usual image implies. Women arguably have more economic opportunities today, though this is debatable. There's also the problem that the Fordist model was only fully realised in the rich Northern countries, not in the majority-world (though it was the inspiration for the development projects of the period). But the point is that the social definition of normality in work is based on something which existed then, but no longer exists today. In addition, Fordism was itself an exception to capitalist history (Mitropoulos, 2005; Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.; Berardi, 2009: 31) and was a geographical exception, never really applying outside the rich countries (Raunig, 2007). Because the Fordist type of career was normatively defined as normal, and was/is the most visible kind of career, there's a tendency even among precarity activists to assume that it actually was/is normal, and that precarity is a historical exception. In fact, viewed over the history of capitalism, Fordism was a relatively short blip in a long history of precarity. It is probably more useful to think of Fordism, rather than precarity, as the exception.
On a deeper level, precarity is fundamental to capitalism, which is 'perpetually in crisis'. Temporary stabilisations such as Fordism occur only by displacing crisis, either onto less fortunate groups, or into the future through debt (Mitropoulos, 2005). Capitalism always renders workers precarious, because workers are made dependent on the sale of labour, and this sale is never guaranteed (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 188). Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) argue that Fordism was actually simply an alternative form of precarity, with capitalism consuming time, energy and affect (emotions) and producing other forms of anxiety. The criticism has also been raised that concentrating on the differences from Fordism does not offer the conceptual possibilities to imagine future developments (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006).
What is new is not precarity, but its expansion to an increasing range of social sectors, especially to university-educated, non-migrant men (Precarias, 2004; Weber, 2004; Vishmidt, 2005), the discovery of precarity among those who had not expected it (Mitropoulos, 2005). In fact, it reached this core group a long time ago, with the increase in temporary jobs, though it is still expanding rather than contracting (Lorey, 2010). Increasingly, graduates can no longer count on a stable job after graduation, but instead, will end up moving between different semi-self-employed positions in the creative field, 'characterised by an ever-widening gap between their erstwhile high social standing and their miserable living standards' (Weber, 2004 paraphrasing Anne and Marine Rambach).
Discourses on Precarity
Different theoretical approaches view the rise of precarity very differently. Neoliberal and Third Way (e.g. Blairite) authors view it as progress, as part of a linear narrative of history. Orthodox Marxists tend to view it simply as a return to pre-Fordist capitalism, imagining history as a kind of tug-of-war between labour and capital, and precarity as the result of a big tug back towards capital's side (which can be redressed by another big tug the other way). Autonomist Marxists tend to view it as a new phase of capitalism, qualitatively different from what went before, initiating a new round of struggles.
The university-educated, freelance subgroup of precarians are sometimes idealised in neoliberal images of self-determining, autonomous, active subjects. Flexible workers and freelancers occupy a nodal position in discourses on the 'New Economy', so in many ways, invisibility occurs in spite of the best efforts of neoliberalism (Weber, 2004). In the 'new economy' discourse, ideas of creativity, flexibility, autonomy and flattened digital networks are used in an attempt to justify increasingly precarious working conditions and outsourcing (Kapur, 2007: 163-4, 169; Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 177). But precarity is more likely to take forms closer to those of the 'ordinary invisibility' which has always sustained capitalism (Vishmidt, 2005).
In radical thought, the most common response to precarity has been to try to reimagine precarious, contingent and flexible workers as a new kind of political subject with its own ways of organising and expressing itself (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 52). Autonomist Marxist authors such as Hardt and Negri (2000), Virno (2004), Lazzarato (1996) and Berardi (2009) reconstruct the precariat, multitude, or immaterial labour as a successor to the proletariat, an exploited force which contains the potential power to shake or smash global capitalism. For instance, Berardi (2009: 52) argues that a 'cognitariat' of cellularised intellectual workers is now counterposed to a ruling managerial class. Many authors in the precarity movement, however, differentiate the lived experience of the precariat from vaguer, more sociological concepts of the multitude or immaterial labour (e.g. Raunig, 2007).
There is a difficulty that ideas of immaterial labour often reproduce the 'New Economy' discourse, with authors such as Brian Holmes (2004), Hardt and Negri (2000) and Paolo Virno (2004) viewing creative production as the hegemonic figure of the current economy which reveals its inner dynamics and the centrality of linguistic production in the contemporary economy. They view the current phase as moving towards the eventual reduction of work and thus of exploitation, and creating a new type of 'common' through the role of socialisation in work and the homogenisation of the work process around communication. In this literature, 'the revolutionary recomposition of subjects takes place... in establishing what we all have in common' (Negri, cited in Raunig, 2007). Such accounts are criticised for privileging certain variants of precarious labour as the most advanced or politically significant (Dowling et al., 2007: 2; Federici, 2006), and for drawing on the idealism of the 'New Economy' literature (Dyer-Witheford, 2005). Federici (2006) argues that capitalism does not move towards higher forms of production and labour, but rather, is built on dispossession of subordinate levels for purposes of accumulation. In addition, the view of the imposition of communicability as progressive is dangerous, given that other authors such as Virilio view it in terms of the reduction of life to capital, the homogenisation and simplification of human life.
On the one hand, neoliberalism glorifies a particular subgroup of the precariat. On the other hand, neoliberalism benefits from the denial of social rights and the constant aspiration of flexible workers to upward mobility into more stable employment. Ideologies of the creative class supply an alibi for the ossification of more insidious forms of precarity. In general, precarity involves a seepage into the world of work of the 'informal and mundane degradation' formerly confined to unrecognised reproductive labour. The basic stake of precarity is the continued imposition of work and of sharply graded social stratification (Vishmidt, 2005; Kapur, 2007: 167). There is thus a need to connect 'smooth' forms of 'self-precarization' to 'rigidly repressive forms of labour discipline' (Raunig 2007), bearing in mind differential access to social power and voice across precarious positions (Shukaitis, 2006). For instance, the idea of horizontal distribution and connection within creative industries is a 'technique of obfuscation' promoted with 'great rhetorical energy', which conceals the 'dark side' of exploited labour (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.).
While flexible workers are now central to the economy, this set of workers are viewed as peripheral in the public mind and are denied social rights. While central in terms of production (especially of information, the raw material of the immaterial economy), precarious workers are peripheral in terms of rights (Foti, 2004). Occasionally, terms like 'precariat' even appear in mainstream studies, with all kinds of reactionary connotations, usually focused on social dissociation and echoing older ideas of the lumpenproletariat or rabble. These accounts portray the precariat as 'self-victimizing agents of their own exclusion', in a 'self-chosen loser existence', irresponsible and refusing to be neoliberally governed, hence needing greater state control. Raunig believes this bogeyman is formed as a defensive reaction to the 'monster' of the precariat and its centrality within contemporary capitalism (Raunig, 2007). Social changes arising from precarity, such as the declining birthrate, lead to pressures to reinforce traditional forms of oppression which are unsustainable in precarity, such as traditional gender roles in reproductive labour (Fantone, 2006).
There are also periodic moral panics about young people who are outside work and education, termed 'neet' in British press discourse, and with slightly different emphases in different national contexts (sometimes on part-time work, sometimes alternative subcultures, sometimes the propensity to live with parents or housemates rather than start a family, and sometimes the knockon effects such as social withdrawal). It is closely related to the discourses on 'social exclusion', 'chavs' and 'anti-sociality'. Precarity is viewed as causing deviance, dissatisfaction with society, low birth and marriage rates, low savings and investment, and so on (Fantone, 2006). This framing of the precariat as victims at best and a social problem at worst both denies agency and voice and contributes to repressive measures aimed at marginal people. It often uses a certain doublespeak: concern with exclusion is really concern with what is perceived as people's failure to "include" themselves in the system on the system's terms; people are then to be "enabled" or "given opportunities" – often euphemisms for coercion – to be "included", in effect, to be forced to circulate, communicate, work, etc.
It seems that social norms across a number of fields (from gender and the 'crisis of masculinity', to anti-immigration sentiments, to work-ethics and ideas of personal responsibility which assume that work leads to security, to the sense of relatively included groups of being part of a public who should be – but increasingly aren't – listened to as an in-group, and their resultant aversion to militant protest) remain oriented to the social system of the previous phase. As Gramsci (1971: 426) argues, there seems to be a lag between socio-economic changes and corresponding changes in social ideologies.
The decline of secure employment has produced terrified reactions from mainstream authors such as Richard Sennett (1998), who fears that values such as trust, community spirit and the importance of work are collapsing. In fact, it is possible to speculate that the current 'security' hysteria, from anti-'crime' fanaticism and 'terror' scares to discourses of 'broken Britain' and cultural decline, are actually displaced responses to the death of Fordist forms of social inclusion, the resultant 'unhomely' experience of older people in the current world, and longings for a return to an earlier period (often the 1950s). Paradoxically, these reactions against neoliberalism also provide the ideological basis for its continuation, feeding into the system's repressive projects. Existential feelings of insecurity, unease and precariousness have been channelled into fear of difference, and hence into reproducing the conditions of insecurity, unease and precariousness.
Take for instance racist anti-cosmopolitanism, from the tabloids to Nazis like the EDL. Migration is not a cause of precarity, nor a reason for its spread; it is often an effect of precarity. But migrants are scapegoated as 'carriers' of precarity, who somehow embody and import global problems into what is imagined as a secluded sphere. Attacks on migrant rights actually reinforce precarity by aiding the system in segmenting labour markets and pushing down working conditions. Similarly, the plethora of problems labelled as 'crime' are bound to increase as people become more insecure, since they provide survival strategies. This is a structural effect, but it is misrepresented as a problem with individuals' moral character, or even an ideological effect of neoliberalism (increasing "selfishness"), rather than an effect of structural changes. Again, the resulting crackdowns help the system segment groups from one another and increase its repressive arsenal. From their articulation in moral panics and a sense of social breakdown, crackdowns seek to hold the dying, economically-unrooted old "society" (conditioned on inclusion and the citizen-subject) together by violence, using state power to attempt to maintain a superstructure for which there is no infrastructure. This drive to violence is used by neoliberalism to enhance its own power, firstly by articulating certain strata of (mainly older) people into its support-base, channelling discontent into pro-system positions while failing to address the causes of existential insecurity, and secondly by using crackdowns to attack resistance and the microsocial symptoms of precarity. It mostly focuses on attacks on difference (how people dress, language-use, sexuality, diffuse social sanctions) in ways which concentrate the effects of insecurity among people who are already marginalised and insecure. Similarly, dominant discourses of 'terrorism' operate to channel people's sense of being at risk away from awareness of the precarity of work-conditions and social inclusion.
Autonomists analyse precarity as a capitalist response to the resistance movements of the 1960s-70s. During this period, the 'refusal of work', the exodus from Fordist labour into various kinds of social marginality, was a common form of resistance epitomised by the figures of the 'slacker' and the 'dropout' and the creation of autonomous forms of community (Shukaitis, 2006). This is viewed in autonomism as an act of exodus from Fordism. Young people of this generation, associated with the rebellion of 1968, were disenchanted with the rigidity of the post-war workplace and often refused to capitulate to full-time work routines (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 180-1). Workers in this period often demanded more flexibility and free time, 'more money, less work'. Capitalism has responded by effectively chasing the resisters into the field of life-outside-work, colonising this field with expanded forms of labour (Mitropoulos, 2005; Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.; Federici, 2006; Frassanito Network, 2005). Neoliberalism 'seized' the exodus 'in order to create a forced activation of the individual labour beyond state regulation' (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). As a result, the boundaries between work and the rest of life has been blurred. This, argues Mitropoulos (2005), is why 'more work', rather than 'more money' or 'more life outside work', comes to seem the solution to poverty. Precarity is also viewed as a response to wage struggle, resulting from attempts to push down wages through offshore production, decentralised production networks and deregulation (Negri, 1998: 210-11). It is also often linked to the shift from industrial to immaterial labour (Federici, 2006).
Economic Context of Precarity
The dominant strategy of capital accumulation today works through 'global cities', regions built around economically important cities which act as concentration points for rare (and therefore profitable) concentrations of services to major companies (Friedmann, 1986; Sassen, 1991). The quest to become a global city is highly competitive, and largely depends on where companies choose to site their headquarters and offices. It thus depends on being as appealing as possible, both subjectively (by playing to capitalist prejudices, purging the poor, getting rid of other uses of urban space) and objectively (by providing bribes to companies, low taxes, infrastructure such as roads, cheap labour, etc). London was one of the first global-city aspirants, and the supposed boom of the 1980s was built on this development path (affecting London and its wider region through the South of England). Today, London is challenged by dozens of cities across the world adopting similar approaches.
The side-effect of a global city development model is that the rest of the territory, which in a Fordist model would be integrated into national welfare systems and production, is effectively abandoned, left to sink or swim – most often to sink – of its own accord. The North and Midlands of England are victims of this process, losing most of their manufacturing capability and gaining very little from the growth of London. Nottingham council, like most urban councils, constantly try to reproduce the global city model, but Nottingham is too small and unimportant to ever be a global city or even a major subordinate hub. In effect, cities like Nottingham are left picking the crumbs from London's table – such as the benefits of regional development grants for building big empty office blocks, and the money brought in from rich students from the South of England or abroad.
Such areas can become potential sites for constructing autonomous zones, particularly around the borders, outside the city centre and system-inserted sites. 'Where a centre emerges, a periphery is also created. As traffic in goods intensifies in the shopping malls, the surrounding area becomes fallow land'. Spaces temporarily freed from their market value can be converted for other uses by non-conventional users, creating a renewed diversity, attracting the people who are similarly left 'lying fallow' (Paoli, 2004) – spaces like the art centre, Sumac, Squat Lobster, Crocus Cafe; in parts of Europe, entire squatted zones and massive social centres in former factories. In this analysis, such spaces are viewed as necessary to be able 'to think and act beyond the constraints of the market', which can either be an alternative perspective or at the very least a moment to breathe deeply inbetween periods of exploitation to recover our productivity. They can be more than a temporary respite, however. 'Periphery and centre depend on one's point of view. If the periphery sees itself as the main setting of possibilities, then it stops being peripheral' (Paoli, 2004). For instance, some indigenous groups paradoxically see their shanty-town in the capital as a periphery of their core zone in the country's rural hinterland (Isbell, 1980). It is through such reversals of perspective that the possibility of an 'outside' emerges.
This accumulation strategy is the root cause of the state's constant shortage of money. Partly because states are seeking to attract capitalists, they both cut back their tax base and increase spending on events and infrastructure which aid capitalism, leading to 'fiscal crises' (Friedmann and Wolff, 1982: 327). The state is short of money because of its dual reluctance to tax transnational capital and to cut those areas of spending which contribute to 'competitiveness'. The brunt of the resultant scarcity tends to be borne by those areas of spending which do not contribute to attracting capitalists, namely, those which help the poor: free education, universal healthcare, benefits, social housing and so on. Often, workers and poor people are expected to meet the costs of arrangements which benefit the capitalists, such as travelling long distances to work because of the lack of affordable housing in global cities. Another aspect of the state response has been to raise the retirement age, a move which expands the pool of precarious workers but also causes a slowdown in economic productivity and growth (Henwood, 2005).
The crisis in the universities has a particular origin in strategies to attract capital. One of the tricks of neoliberalism is to 'overproduce' university graduates in relation to available work, in order to reduce the cost of skilled labour and attract companies to an unemployed, skilled labour pool. Increasingly, therefore, there is no guarantee of well-paid employment after university. Ironically, the state is assuming that students can afford to pay back massive debts at just the time that the correlation between university achievement and well-paid employment is evaporating. With the replacement of comprehensive wages with the sale of small packets of time, the assumption that education can be paid back from later income is naive. It has repeatedly emerged that some groups of students – notably women, and students with disabilities – are unlikely to benefit economically from university (c.f. Fantone, 2006). In short, the state is encouraging higher education as a way to boost profits, but displacing the costs of this strategy onto students.
Credit also has a special role, in two ways. Firstly, it sustains the income of consumers in rich countries, whose wages are declining due to neoliberalism. While the reasons people do this have to do with preserving their own standard of living, protecting their 'social wage', but it also sustains the system, by reproducing North-South dominance and keeping up a level of consumption sufficient to sustain profits. Workers in places like China may be a good source of cheap goods, but they aren't being paid enough to buy enough of these goods for the companies to profit – companies need people who are rich enough to buy the goods, and at the moment, this is mainly western people. This credit is coming to the North, especially America, from 'emerging' economic powers in Asia and the Middle East, who lend to America and the North based on their reputation as stable places to lend. This reputation is actually a result of their production position in the previous, Fordist period, and so is potentially unstable (Arrighi, 2007). In effect, Chinese, Japanese and Saudi investors profiting from cheap production and oil exports are subsidising western living standards by giving out loans. Much of this credit will never be repaid. It's effectively a device for transferring resources. And eventually they'll have to stop lending, since it's only a good bargain because of things which don't apply any more. Actually, it's already being undermined, because Chinese workers are starting to demand higher wages and undermine the flow of profits which funds credit. This has been viewed as the underlying cause of the current crisis (Midnight Notes Collective, 2010). Though benefiting from exploitation elsewhere, western workers aren't really getting a good deal here: what used to be paid as wages or 'social wage', and is now funded by loans, goes along with all kinds of conditionality attached to the loans. Credit, and credit-worthiness, are being used as a system of surveillance and regulation which divide Northern populations into included and excluded groups, varying people's standards of living based on how conformist, and therefore credit-worthy, people are (Gill, 1995).
Social Effects of Precarity
Precarity has far-reaching social effects, which give rise to both challenges and opportunities for dissent. One of these is the decline in the feeling of being part of the national social collective, a situation which generates increasingly oppositional stances in autonomous/activist subcultures and among the urban poor. This is an effect of the disintegration of earlier connections between inclusion and the organisation of work. Labour relations have become disconnected from citizenship, because of the globalisation of capitalism (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 59-60). Fordism relied on the articulation of the two as a way to incorporate workers as citizen-subjects. Today, however, workers engaged in transnational networks (who include many of the more 'included' workers) have little in common with citizen-subjects, and are systemically divided from people who are located mainly in local forms of protection (2008: 61). Hence, the citizen-subject and the public have long ceased to be effective constitutive powers for democratic politics (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). As a result, new struggles, such as those of migrant workers, emerge at points where the inclusions and exclusions of capitalist economics and the state fail to overlap (Nowotny, 2004).
Another of the effects of precarity is that it decomposes social bonds (Precarias, 2004). The 'yo-yo hours and days' of precarious work undermine the possibility of social relations (Tari and Vanni, 2005). Social atomisation is a major barrier to political struggle for groups such as migrants, and recreating social spaces itself goes a long way towards producing resistance. Writing on the Universal Embassy, an undocumented migrant project in Belgium, he argues that it recreates the possibility of residing or moving in a context where the perspective for a local existence is constantly being destroyed by the dominant system, temporarily establishing a partial liberation from the regime of territory and creating the perspective of an outside. 'The pivot of the various activities is the attempt to counteract the initial situation of social atomization by creating a context of experience and articulation' (Nowotny, 2004). There are also demographic and social effects, as people are less likely to have children when their finances and relationships are insecure.
Another effect is psychological over-arousal. 'Nobody can conceive of his or her own life in a more relaxed and egalitarian manner. S/he who relaxes may very well end up on the streets, in the poorhouse or in jail' (Berardi, 2009: 119). Attention is besieged and scarce, denying time for love, compassion, pleasure, understanding and so on (2009: 41, 46). There is also an imbalance between the supply of information and the limited attention available for it, effectively causing a crisis of overproduction of stimulation (2009: 44-5). Intellectual competences are devalued as a result (2009: 51). We should think here not only of the plight of the humanities in academia, but also the plight of local, indigenous and tacit knowledges.
One of the invisible effects of precarity is widespread psychological pain. Sociologist Elisabeth Katschnig-Fasch found in interviews that precarious workers were often miserable, despite the taboo in talking about such misery. Workers suffer from a lack of recognition for work, which often leads to a sense of guilt (see Weber, 2004). Precarious workers also risk losing the ability to distinguish between life and work, public and private spaces, or the world of work and one's sense of self or one's personal social networks (Fantone, 2006). Anxiety has become a general social condition, but its effects are nevertheless different: the fear among the excluded of slipping in status is not the same as the fear of the marginal of being excluded, or that of the excluded (and autonomous) who fear repression and violence (McMarvill and Los Ricos, n.d.). Precarity generalises anxiety, but its effects are highly variant.
It is sometimes argued that precarity and flexibility are not solely negative phenomena, particularly as experienced by young women. The research of the Italian feminist group Prec@s revealed that many young women do not want a return to the 'security' their mothers had, which corresponded with unrecognised reproductive labour and gendered subordination. They seek autonomy and creativity, rather than security (Fantone, 2006). Similarly, in the global South, neoliberalism was often able to draw on frustrations of informal sector workers against the corporate system from which they were excluded.
The usual motivation for theorising about precarity is the desire to draw on the energies of resistance it unleashes. Autonomists argue that, not only does precarity involve the recuperation of a previous autonomous exodus, it also retains an extra-systemic power: 'new forms of living and new social relationships are constantly developed and reinvented, and processes of precarization are also productive in this sense', as a source of potentially empowering subjectivities (Lorey, 2010). Labour practices which on the one hand spring from post-Fordism, on the other hand also contain potentialities which arise from workers' own demands and refusals (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). For example, the sense of being unable to plan for the long-term leads to critiques of pressures to maintain stable families and gender-roles (Fantone, 2006).
The concept of precarity is viewed as helpful because it enables the integration of perspectives drawn from different positions and struggles. Sarrantonio argues that the concept of precarity is 'a way of looking at the system as a whole without ignoring the multitude of movements and individuals', adding scope to individual and group actions which might otherwise seem ineffectual and pointless. It is like a cracked looking-glass which can be seen as a whole or through each crack. Precarity as a concept captures the glass as a whole, while recognising its cracked nature. Hence, organising around precarity means 'embracing the myriad of personal and political struggles that occur through every moment of our lives'. It means embracing dialogue about everyday life and connections between movements, linking these to 'larger political questions' and a 'larger perspective' (Sarrantonio, 2008).
The precariat is viewed in such perspectives as a new social subject which is potentially frightening to the dominant system. Tsianos and Papadopoulos (2006) argue that it is not new forms of labour but the embodied experience of exploitation which produces new subjectivities, hence the importance of precarity as the point where immaterial production meets the crisis of Fordism. New social subjectivities tend to mirror experiences of precarity rather than immaterial production itself. They view precarity as a useful concept because it 'drifts constantly away from its social determinants', providing space for thinking alternative futures. Similarly, Raunig (2007) argues that what the precariat continues from the proletariat is not a fixation with social position or a historical teleology, but the status of being a 'sleepless monster', a spectre haunting capitalism.
This said, it is only when it articulates its positive side, rather than its anxiety, that the precariat is frightening. Only a subject not prepared to participate in the politics of inclusion is frightening for the system (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). Such a subject is not identical with its position in the social system, but rather, involves a kind of departure from it, an emergent outside. It involves an excess over existing organisational forms such as the party, union and identity politics. These are insufficient because they fall foul of 'not having the time', of a timeline which is not that of the precariat, and because their conditions, such as 'statism of labour and interventionism of the state' are absent in the terrain of precarity. Labour fragmentation makes trade unionism difficult: it is impossible to protect immeasurable forces through bargaining; protection would have to take a different form (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006).
A rather different view of precarity or precariousness, focused on existential rather than economic aspects, is put forward by Judith Butler. Butler argues that precarity should be linked to a deeper ontological precariousness which comes from people's vulnerability to violence and silencing. Precarity refers to conditions which threaten life in ways which are outside one's control (2009: i), because of 'failing social and economic networks of support' (2009: ii). It is a condition which brings together those who are not viewed as 'recognizable, readable or grievable', as lives worth sheltering which if lost would be worth mourning (2009: xii-xiii). Precarity as a social condition thus derives from the imposition of vulnerability by social norms, arising from political decisions and social practices which protect some but not others. Following Achille Mbembe, Butler conceives this vulnerability as perceptual as well as material, arising from the classification of certain lives as not grievable (Lorey, 2010). Such exclusions are constantly challenged. Movements of precarious people are directed against social exclusion, exposing and opposing it (2009: vi). This raises the question of how 'the unspeakable population speak' and articulate claims (2009: xiii). Lorey (2010) argues that Butler's view identifies precariousness with vulnerability (or interdependence with others), which is an extension of birth, since initial survival depends on others.
I would argue that Butler's account is problematic in certain ways. Butler's frame is problematically liberal; she assumes that something like normative status-ranking is unavoidable, and she does not distinguish between simply being harmed and the special kinds of harm or 'abjection' which arise from oppression and exclusion. She is mistaken in thinking that modern social institutions are designed to minimise precarity (2009: ii). Rather, they are designed to entrench it so as to produce social compliance, including by artificially creating scarcity and vulnerability. Furthermore, I would argue that the basic level of dependence is ecological, rather than social: people need a supportive ecosystem to avoid the risks of precariousness, which usually but not always includes other people. This said, it might be argued based on Butler's initial insights that capitalism entrenches the risk of abjection, and hence precariousness, through precarity, whereas more resilient economic systems seek to avoid the risk of abjection. Precariousness certainly results from failing networks of social and economic support, but this can be seen as much as a result of the onslaught of modern social forms as their deterioration. Agamben is here closer to the truth when he views homo sacer, the precarious or abjected person, as a product of modern logics of sovereignty.
The Precarity Movement
In addition to being a source of theory, precarity has become an organising focus for a range of groups across Europe, such as Precarias a la Deriva, Chainworkers, Intermittents du Spectacle, and Prec@s. These groups have organised a range of protests and actions targeting aspects of precarity. Euromayday has become the flagship of the precarity movement. The first event in Milan involved 5,000 people in a flying picket which shut down chainstores. Subsequent events have drawn up to 150,000 (Shukaitis, 2006). The Mayday movement, which by 2006 spanned 16 cities, was an attempt to bring the spirit of summit protests to precariat organising (Brophy and de Peuter, 2006: 185). In Italy, the movement have even created a saint, 'San Precario', who is the patron saint of precarious workers and whose icons show up on protests (Federici, 2006), and has performed 'miracles' such as the autonomous reduction of prices (Shukaitis, 2006). Another Italian precarity action involved staging a fake fashion show, and then creating a scare around plans to disrupt it (Shukaitis, 2006). Such movements are sometimes viewed as a way of making the precariat visible (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 184). They are often combined with forms of militant investigation or co-research which seek to articulate and connect the voices of precarious workers and their strategies and resistance.
The precarity movement has initiated a switch in meanings of the idea of precarity. The movement is credited with appropriating and circulating what was formerly an entirely negative term, creating a new political horizon for positing new rights: flexicurity (security for flexible workers), unionisation of unstable forms of work, access to free culture and knowledge, cheap housing and travel, and so on (Fantone, 2006). The precariat are thus ambiguous, not simply the victims of precarization (Raunig, 2007). Indeed, one statement deems the term 'an offensive [i.e. attacking] self-description in order to emphasise the subjective and utopian moments of precarization' (Frassanito Network, 2005), and another terms it primarily an interior rather than imposed stance (Tari and Vanni, 2005). Over time, the movement has moved from the slogan 'stop precarity!' to a positive identification with the precariat, a 'multifaceted and diverse crowd' which viewed itself as a 'social movement' not a group of victims (Raunig, 2007).
The sheer diversity of the movement is impressive. Lorey (2010) argues that precarity protests have created alliances between groups such as cultural producers and knowledge workers, migrants, unemployed people, trade unions, and organisations of illegalised people. They provide a way of conceiving subjectivity which can bring together such diverse groups. The precarious do not have a common identity, but have common experiences on which such movements can build. Their singularity is produced through what they share with others as a process of becoming-common or constituent power which does not yet exist (Lorey, 2010). Raunig (2007) lists participant groups including migrants, autonomists and left-wing activists, art activists and cognitive workers. Brophy and de Peuter (2007: 185) suggest that the precariat prefers organising in affinity-based networks rather than bureaucratic organisations, and lists independent media activists, queer activists, undocumented migrants, squatted social centres and base unions among the participants.
In addition to such explicit movements against precarity, other forms of resistance can often be situated in relation to it. Van Veen (2010) argues that new cultural forms such as rave culture emerge as resistances within the field of precarity. They manipulate or 'remix' the 'scripts' of precarity, playing on the boundary between the reality of precarious labour and the ideology of radical, precarious workplay. For van Veen, the dominant order is 'inscribed' in fantasies of freedom, self-fulfilment and mobility 'at the same time that their precarity and consumption undermine the radical actualisation of their scripts' (2010). Rave culture functions by furthering these scripts to the point of excess, 'intensified to the point of jouissance' or lived enjoyment. Rave culture emerged as an unapproved 'cultural assemblage of exodus'. It thus contributes to further deconstructing the categories of labour and leisure. This is timely in the light of recent events: the challenge posed by the free party movement has re-emerged dramatically with the successful defeat of police repression at the Scumoween rave.
Other accounts emphasise the possibility of new forms of protest. Neilson and Rossiter use as their example here the model of sudden 'flash' protests which emanate in and withdraw into a space of quiet suffering, but which erupt unpredictably into public space, and are dangerous and powerful because of this unpredictability (2008: 67). This is similar to Hardt and Negri's view that the snake has replaced the mole (2000: 57-8). Neilson and Rossiter use examples such as migrant workers' occupations of public 'non-spaces' in Hong Kong and flash-mob-style protests by Indian taxi-drivers in Melbourne as examples of the modalities of precarious protest.
Migration and gender issues often intersect with precarity issues. Mezzadra (2007) argues that migrant struggles prefigure the struggles of the precariat, firstly because migration tests the limits of capitalist control, and secondly because the precariousness of migrant labour threatens to spread to the entire workforce. Demands are made to combine 'freedom of movement' with 'freedom of communication', linking knowledge workers to migrants (Bove et al., 2003). Attention is also drawn to the feminisation of much precarious labour (Precarias, 2004). The decline of the traditional family, due partly to the loss of the 'family wage', has created new commodified sectors such as fast food and paid childcare, which have mostly been filled by women workers. In addition, attributes traditionally assigned as 'feminine', such as affection, versatility and multitasking, are increasingly valued in the service economy (Fantone, 2006). On the other hand, the discourse of the precarity movement has been criticised by feminists for its emphasis on mostly-male creative workers (Federici, 2006; Vishmidt, 2005). The articulation of gender issues with precarity issues is a work of translation which requires innovative practices.
The precarity movement has sometimes been questioned for its lack of wider resonance. According to some authors, precarity has had difficulty gaining effectiveness in actually organising radical action (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 53). It has particularly failed to spread from its conceptual origins in countries in which an extensive 'Fordist' or 'corporatist' capitalism is currently being undermined to those, such as Britain, in which precarity does not seem exceptional or new (2008: 54). Precarity seems exceptional in countries like France, Germany and Italy largely because the previous Fordist arrangement seems normal. Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) argue that precarity emerged as a political concept partly because of the depressive mood after the failure of the Iraq war protests and the 'politics of fear' associated with a period of interminable global war. Fantone (2006) argues that the precarity movement mostly represents a generation of highly-educated young adults (aged about 20 to 40) in urban areas, most of them already politicised or socially "alternative". It has long been predicted that this generation would grow disaffected. Similarly, Federici (2006) argues that the movement's problems stem from its particular origins among highly educated activists to whom the narrative of immaterial labour as hegemonic appeals.
The precarity movement, emerging from a stratum of activists coming out of higher education who are facing precarity for the first time, sometimes fails to resonate with others who are already marginal, and view the prospect of ongoing precarious labour as 'nearly utopian' (Berlant, 2007: 275; Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Journalist Bob Herbert found hopelessness to be the basic emotional state among employed youths in Chicago: none expected to find work, or to be able to rebel and bring about change. Berardi says this is because the perception of decline is deeper than politics, amounting to a feeling of a collapse so total that it precludes alternatives (Berardi, 2009: 30). In practice, people caught in precarity seem to get caught in aspirational identification with the goal of constructing a 'less-bad' life, rather than opposing precarity (Berlant, 2007: 291; Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Another problem is that precarity can be channelled into the demand for identity, and hence into far-right and communalist movements (Berardi, 2009: 94-5). Freelancers lacking a boss to fight can end up mobilised by nationalist and populist movements against social spending, as a substitute for the boss (Weber, 2004). Communitarians seek to freeze contingency to ward off precarity, and there are also risks that movements become trapped in the perceived security of global juridical recognition (Mitropoulos, 2005). Another problem is the ambiguous status of social networks. Tensions between networks as non-representational alternatives to hierarchy or as aspects of networked governance, with its own prevailing discourses, can be either productive tensions or produce the breakdown of networks (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.).
These criticisms have prompted responses. Supporters of the concept of precarity argue that divisions between more and less impoverished types of precarity reproduce the neoliberal divide-and-rule strategy from which such stratifications derive (Lorey, 2010), a point also made by Neilson and Rossiter regarding the dispute over whether migrants or knowledge workers are the paradigmatic figure of precarity (n.d.). I suspect this may exaggerate the extent to which divisions between included and excluded groups reflect ways of seeing and 'interests', differences in kind as well as degree. The more radical of the struggles of our time come from groups of people who are excluded, extremely marginal, or are actively seeking to create or preserve autonomy, and these groups are a world away from the desire for less adverse conditions of incorporation which comes most spontaneously to more included groups.
Many discussions of the precarity movement emphasise the need to recognise difference. Today, political organisation or composition must operate across borders because unstable conditions are now widespread (2008: 65). It is thus argued that precarity can't be viewed as grounding political struggles because its effects are too diverse (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 58). It does not provide a common cause for people separated by institutional and other divisions, such as citizenship status (2008: 64; c.f. Berardi, 2009: 93). Rather, it can function as a space in which different aspirations and struggles are articulated. Translation, as a way of bringing differences into relation, is here crucial (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 60; c.f. Butler, 2009: ix-x). The 'common' of precarity comes into being through translation between different, precarious positions, with movement recognised as having a determining force in constructions of precarity (2008: 64). Raunig (2007) observes that organisations of the precariat would have to foster the intercourse and exchange of differences, rather than their unification, creating a 'union in dispersion' or a combination in 'machines' rather than 'identitary vessels'. Similarly, the Frassanito Network (2005) attempt to imagine political subject-formation 'in which different subject positions can cooperate in the production of a new common ground of struggle without sacrificing the peculiarity of demands which arise from the very composition of living labour'. This is theorised in terms of 'increasing communication'. Shukaitis (2006) similarly maintains that differences in the social positions of precarious groups produce differing forms of rebellion.
The Spanish feminist group Precarias a la Deriva argue that people's situations are now so diverse and singular that it is difficult to find either common ground or even clear differences. They argue for recomposition through coming together. 'We need to communicate the lack and excess of our work and life situations in order to escape... neoliberal fragmentation' (Precarias, 2004). Rather than a simple defence of established rights, the precarity movement needs to be reframed in terms of networking and solidarity across genders, generations and ethnicities. It also reclaims the term "precarity" from a dominant construction in which it is viewed as purely negative (Fantone, 2006).
It is, however, often theorised as a concept enabling struggle against the general development of conditions of labour (Frassanito Network, 2005). Stripped of guarantees, life and labour are still left with one option: political action (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). It is sometimes suggested that attributes and skill-sets gained from precarious labour, such as an eye for opportunities, networking, iconography and research, also enable new forms of dissent (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 183-4). Others, such as Mitropoulos (2005), question whether there is any need for a device to unify workers. There is a worrying trend to seek the subordination of difference to sameness in any strategy which focuses on a particular identity-category as the basis of a common struggle. The limit to autonomism, therefore, is its emphasis on identity, its treatment of the precariat, immaterial labour, or the multitude as something akin to an identity-category with a definite social presence (even if its diversity is recognised in the small-print). This said, movements focused on precarity seem inclined to move beyond this limit through their emphasis on translation and dialogue across difference.
Back to Security?
A common response to precarity on the left has been an attempt to return to something like the Fordist order. Trade unions have generally reacted negatively to precarity and flexible work, which they view as a threat to working conditions and to the existence of the unions themselves, which are premised on organisation in stable workplaces. As a result, they generally seek a return to Fordism and re-regulation of employment. The same position is taken by some theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu. This is problematic because it fails to see how precarity is actually a way in which capitalism has recuperated the 'refusal of work' of the 1970s, or the flight from Fordist labour (Mitropoulos, 2005), and because it draws rhetorical force from the assumption that earlier conditions were good (Shukaitis, 2006). It also overlaps dangerously with the negative discourse on the precariat as social problem.
A more sophisticated, but also problematic, approach focuses on the idea of a basic income or guaranteed social wage. It is often suggested in autonomist theory that people are actually constantly doing unpaid work through the contribution of their abilities to communicate, adapt, produce emotional effects and so on. This is an extension of an older argument which views housework, subsistence production, childcare, and other unpaid activities as necessary parts of the reproduction of capitalism which are exploited without being paid. As a result, it is sometimes argued that people should demand a basic income or social wage, unconditional on specific jobs, to reward this unpaid work (Fumagalli, 2005). The belief that precarious working conditions are here to stay leads to a demand for more security for people in precarious work (Fantone, 2006). For instance, the French group Intermittents du Spectacle call for a continuous income for discontinuous work (cited Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 186). As Neundlinger argues, '[i]f it is drummed into us that there is no more security, that we have to get used to flexibility and mobility, then as the precariously employed, we counter, "All right then... we demand – for all eventualities – an income!' (2004).
This view has faced a number of criticisms. One problem with this argument is that it keeps the wage tied to work, thus implying that only useful people should be rewarded. This implies a kind of psychological discrimination: only those people who are socially adaptive are rewarded. This is not in fact how autonomists use the idea, but it is implied in the nexus created between useful labour and the basic income. At its limits, this conception maintains that even activity with no social content is productive, since there is no fixed definition of value – even for instance a person acting out individual psychological imperatives which only they understand would be as much a source of value as any other kind of social action (Gulli, 2010). While this is true in terms of ethical value, this is not the kind of value which sustains neoliberalism; rather, neoliberalism is looking for special kinds of 'employable' value such as rapid, instantly communicable transmission of information free of ambiguity from the dominant perspective, and the demand to be communicable, to communicate and to cooperate (Lazzarato, 1996: 3).
Another problem is that the basic income demand leaves a lot of power in the hands of the state, looking to the state to solve the problems of the precariat. This is sometimes taken as dangerous in a world where the state already poses as the provider of security. It involves a view of the state as an agent which can and must stabilise capital, and it 'reinforces the dominant rhetoric of security in a period of global war' (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). Mitropoulos argues that 'law becomes the secularised language of prayer against contingency', even as the separation of law from economy becomes less plausible than it ever was. Resistance as exodus is thus retranslated into strategies of visibility, recognition and inclusion. In practice, the basic income tends to convert into compulsion to work or even into forced labour through workfare (Mitropoulos, 2005). At the very least least it is rather disempowering, denying the precariat the means to solve its own problems. Shukaitis views the demand for a basic income as risking an appeal to the nation-state or transnational state-like apparatuses (2006). Similarly, Iles (2005: 136) argues that the demand risks foreclosing struggles which seek to transcend capitalism altogether. It is also rather unlikely that states, squeezed by neoliberal demands to be 'competitive' in a global race to the bottom to attract corporations, will spend on establishing basic incomes, even if in the long term it would stabilise neoliberalism (which is questionable).
There is some controversy over whether the demand for a basic income could be successful within a capitalist society. Tsianos and Papadopoulos argue that a basic income is incompatible with waged labour, since it decouples income from work. They criticise campaigns of this sort for attempting to establish a new compromise of flexicurity (security in flexible work), rather than seeking to move beyond work. Instead of viewing precarious workers as a 'scared subject' needing protection, we should view the precariat as a frightening subject which bears the power to change the world (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). Neundlinger (2004) argues that it is a strategy to find a balance between life without limits and the experience of precarious integration, and is itself precariously balanced between the creation of free spaces outside capitalism and the state and the danger of reproducing exclusions around the logic of the normality of the current social order. Arguably, a basic income of a neoliberal type already exists in forms of income support (such as Working Tax Credits and housing benefit) which subsidise low wages. There seems little motive for neoliberalism to go beyond such measures. Lorey (2010) argues that neoliberalism does not want to permit any reduction in insecurity because it uses insecurity to govern. Indeed, a de facto basic income existed for national citizens in the North prior to the rise of neoliberalism, due to the rise of 'dole autonomy', in which people would use benefits and student grants to provide an income while remaining autonomous from capitalist power (Aufheben, 1999). The neoliberal attack is partly a response to this phenomenon, which performed a 'decommodifying' function disliked by capitalists and arguably affecting profits (Offe, 1984).
However, Brophy and de Peuter (2007: 186) suggest that a basic income may be capitalism's only way to address a future labour crisis arising from a failure to pay to sustain an intermittent workforce. This raises interesting questions. Capitalism seems to go historically through phases of more and less regulated periods, of organised capitalism and muddling-through, corresponding with upturn and downturn phases, and it's quite likely that if we ever come out of this recession, some kind of more organised capitalist system will result. And it is quite likely, on past experience, that today's radical demands, in suitably watered-down forms, will be partly satisfied (much like earlier labour demands were incorporated in Fordism, and identity-political struggles in neoliberal discourse). Whether this will actually make things better is another matter. Writers at the peak of Fordism, such as Marcuse (1964) and Debord (1967), tend to portray it as stultifying, socially closed, authoritarian, lacking a sense of an outside or alternative. In this sense, there are advantages to living in an era of recession, when options seem more open. It also seems that the transition between upturn and downturn phases, and between periods of capitalism, occurs in response to mass resistance which renders the previous composition of capitalism unsustainable. A victory for the basic income campaign would certainly be a huge step forward at a practical level, but without moving beyond the capitalist frame. Like the welfare state before it, it is likely to be conceded only if the system feels threatened by a more thoroughgoing challenge.
Reconstructing Autonomous Lifeworlds
The alternative to looking to the system for solutions it to reconstruct solutions of our own, at a grassroots level. A number of arguments of this kind have been made. Precarias a la Deriva argue that we are being denied the right to form our own existential territories, or sense of place. 'If this territorialization cannot take place in a mobile and changing work place, then we will have to construct more open and diffuse spaces' (Precarias, 2004). Tsianos and Papadopoulos (2006) write of reclaiming the ability to 'tarry with time', breaking the linear logic of time, in resistance to the stance of 'I don't have the time'. They call for a questioning of the centrality of work in life. Berardi argues that a strategy of 'subtraction' is possible, distancing oneself from the vortex of information flows and competitive pressures, but this strategy can only be pursued by small, autonomous communities (2009: 43). These suggestions point towards strategies which emphasise the reconstruction of autonomy.
It should be remembered that the difficulties of exclusion and exploitation have been reconfigured, so that needs and demands are no longer the same as before. Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) cite a staff-writer that, in flexible work, days roll into one another, and with losing track of time, people also lose track of hope for a different tomorrow. Their struggle is thus less about the terms of work and more about reclaiming 'the time of life', the ability to create and to look forward to something new. They argue that this would mean in practice 'reinstating or inventing technics of value that address the uncertainties of economic and ontological life', creating a life where people do not have 'security' in the usual sense, but are active and free. These authors argue that the commons are no longer fragile spaces to be protected against enclosure, but must be actively constructed, along with new subjectivities (2008: 65-6). Mitropoulos similarly argues that a different future can only be constructed precariously, without grounds (2005). Authors like Virno (2004) similarly argue for an engaged withdrawal. But towards what kind of alternative? Such accounts tend to leave unanswered the question of the conditions for such a life.
We need to build our own responses to precarity, which create resilience and human security through networks and everyday relations. The precarity of workers in capitalism was initially created through dispossession from means of subsistence (Shukaitis, 2006). It thus follows that the reconstruction of subsistence can recreate the commons. The subsistence perspective (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, 1999) suggests the possibility of creating a systematic alternative to capitalist commodity production. This alternative can operate both at the level of basic necessities of life, and in terms of the reconfiguration of cultural production, education, etc. The dynamic is different from that implied by Neilson and Rossiter, because, while commons must be actively constructed, they also become a fragile heritage once formed, which must be defended against enclosure. There are still many places in the world, such as Chiapas and West Papua, and occasionally in Britain, as in the defence of social centres and squats, where the commons-enclosure logic still operates in its classical form. Furthermore, the more the commons are actively constructed, the greater the space they cover. The small autonomous communities Berardi writes of can be recomposed into wider movements as networks of subsistence. The commons can thus potentially form an entire autonomous zone taking shape under the nose of the dominant system. This move, especially if combined with a gift economy, creates the possibility for a basic income without recourse to a provider such as the state.
The recreation of subsistence is crucial here. Subsistence involves the creation of resilience in meeting basic needs, as opposed to maximising outcome at the expense of vulnerability to shocks. It also reorients from exchange-values to use-values, restoring the dimension of the outside which has been corroded by neoliberalism. Federici (2006) argues that we need to rethink and draw inspiration from the historical tradition of mutual aid in working-class communities. Prior to Fordism, a wide array of everyday responses to insecurity were very common in working-class life, such as mutual aid funds, allotments, and free services provided to neighbours. These, and similar experimental initiatives, form the basis for Colin Ward's work on anarchy in everyday life (e.g. Ward, 1982). Many of these practices have decayed because the welfare state seemed to make them superfluous. In effect, the system has destroyed these everyday responses by luring people into a false sense of security, hooking people on system-provided institutions, and then withdrawing or raising the costs of the systemic institutions once the alternatives have declined. There is an urgent need to reconstruct everyday, networked responses to precarity and to rebuild resilience. Federici (2006) also refers to indigenous communities in Bolivia and Ecuador as reproducing themselves effectively, generating sustained, very radical struggles against capital. Indigenous communities are often exemplary in showing how life can be lived outside of capitalist relations. The emerging Free Universities provide another example of the reconstruction of social relations in response to precarity. In effect, they reorganise education on a gift economy model. The multiplication of such initiatives across all fields of life can render capitalism and the state superfluous, recreating a basis from which sustainable movements of resistance can arise.
To conclude, the precariat is a frightening new subject because precariousness contains positive as well as negative aspects. Yet the precariat remains an anxious subject because the absence of guarantees from the state and capital provides existential insecurity. The current wave of cuts compound this situation, showing the unguaranteed nature of forms of 'commons' based on the welfare state in the current climate. In moving beyond vulnerability to such attacks, it is necessary to pose a systemic critique of work and commodification, and to reconstruct new forms of life based on subsistence and gift economies. In this way, we can move beyond making demands on a state we have too little power to influence, and at the same time create a basis to be able to sustain demands more militantly in the future. Ultimately, the effectiveness of responses to cuts and to neoliberal assaults on social rights depends on our ability to recompose autonomous spaces.
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