In my previous post on Guy Standing’s recent talk on the precariat at Goldsmith’s College, I rehearsed his argument about the economic and political changes that created the precariat, the characteristics of precarious life, and the composition of the precariat. With all of that laid out, he went back again to Karl Polanyi, or at least to his interpretation of Polanyi. He deduces three principles from The Great Transformation that seem relevant to where we are now.
- Every new forward march has to built on the insecurities of an emerging class, and there must be new forms of action. There must be a struggle for recognition (cf Syriza, Podemos) – which needs to be a process of subjective recognition. He argued that Podemos is leading the polls in Spain because it is a precariat party. In Milan, different but similar, the *sciopero social* or “social strike.”
- The second struggle is a struggle for representation in the state.
- The third struggle is a struggle for redistribution. A lot of redistribution is needed: a redistribution of security; a redistribution of the control of time (the precarisat has none); the redistribution of access to quality space (in the face of the shrinking of the commons); the redistribution of access to education (as against standardised training for the labour market; redistribution of financial knowledge and advice; and a redistribution of financial capital (see the discussion of Basic Income below).
Guy Standing has more than anyone else been responsible, as an academic and an activist, for pushing the concept of the precariat into political discourse, through his books – The Precariat (free online), The Precariat Charter, and Basic Income – and his articles and lectures. He was a guest last week in London of Goldsmith’s Anthropology Department and its recently formed Political Economy Research Centre. Anything in quotes, except the definition immediately below, was noted while he spoke, but – in the way of these things – may not be exactly verbatim.
The concept of the precariat, from Wiktionary: “People suffering from precarity, especially as a social class; people living a precarious existence, without security or predictability, especially job security.”
After he wrote The Precariat, Standing was asked to do hundreds of talks around the world. From one of these talks, the idea emerged of a Precariat Charter, timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he described as being “the first class-based demand for rights and liberties against the state,” albeit that the demands were coming from the class of barons. The Charter of the Forests, two years later, was the first ecological charter.
One of my New Year Resolutions is to try to do some different things on the next wave – to try to mix up the content a bit. And oddly, the death of the former Conservative Home Secretary Leon Brittan gives me exactly this opportunity. I’ll remember him this way, through a poem by Pat Condell that I read in 1985 and came to mind the moment I heard the news that Brittan had died.
We’re backing Brittan
by Pat Condell
more prisons! restrain! incarcerate!
protect us from people who don’t pay their rates
from vagabonds, vagrants, dogs who foul the pavement
& anyone scrounging on the welfare state
from prostitutes, shoplifters, single parents
people who leave food on the side of their plate
who squeeze the toothpaste in the middle
steal from clotheslines & beg on the street
protect us from anyone who answers back
when stopped on suspicion of being black
save us from drug users, self-abusers
anyone who spits or shows their tits
drunks who shout and throw themselves about
Greenham women, pickets, yobs and louts
& anyone who doesn’t like the future we face
a place for everyone & everyone in their place
The poem was published in Hard Lines 2, a Faber anthology of “new prose and poetry” chosen by Ian Dury, Pete Townshend, Alan Bleasdale and Fanny Dubes, in a brief moment when poetry was about to become the new rock and roll. There are no biographies of contributors in the book, but I’m as sure as I can be that the author is this Pat Condell.
When the book was published, Brittan was Home Secretary, and came across badly; he looked like the face of the nasty party. Condell’s poem captures exactly the tone of 1980s Conservatism, with its vindictiveness, its mean spirit and grim social illiberalism.
As it happens, the obituaries suggest that he was a little more liberal than he let on. Or not: he was Home Secretary during the miners’ strike, and encouraged the militaristic policing strategy that was used throughout the strike.
And his judgment was poor. He argued for a change in the law so that the killers of police men and women could be executed, in the wave of hysteria that followed the death of Yvonne Fletcher, but lost the Commons’ vote heavily. And he bullied the BBC – although he was doing Margaret’s bidding here – into banning the Real Lives documentary about Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Gregory Campbell of the DUP, and was astonished when journalists struck for a day in protest (including me, working at ITN. As a colleague told a Spanish news crew filming the picket line at the Wells Street building. “There is no news today so there is news tomorrow.”)
The 1980s was the age when “politics as performance” was invented – political discourse shifted from policy to representation – and Brittan’s performance as Home Secretary, captured viscerally in Condell’s poem, can be read as a prototype of today’s (vindictive, mean-spirited) Conservative Party. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place. No wonder David Cameron was so generous with his tribute.
The image of Leon Brittan at the top of the post is from the Foresign and Commonwealth Office via Wikipedia. and is published here under an Open Government Licence.
One of my pleasures over the holiday period has been reading The Baffler‘s third book-length collection of articles, No Future For You. (I read the first one, Commodify Your Dissent in the early 2000s, but missed the second one.) For those new to The Baffler: it is a radical American magazine, published three times a year, that has mostly been going since 1988. The list of authors in this latest collection is impressive, from Baffler founder Thomas Frank to Susan Faludi, Evgeny Morozov, Rick Perlstein, Barbara Ehrenreich, and David Graeber. The collection of subjects ranges wide across the sociopathies of our late Potemkin-capitalism, from gentrification to LinkedIn, to Vice, NewsCorp and the Washington Post, to Sheryl Sandberg and the Waltons, to Fifty Shades of Grey and Prometheus to all of the President’s biographers. I bought the book to have a print copy of David Graeber’s magisterial essay “Of Flying Cars And The Declining Rate of Profit” on the failure of innovation in the digital age.
If there is a theme that binds these different authors and their disparate subjects, it is that The Baffler has a sharp eye for hucksters and hucksterism. And more: that in our present era of late capitalism, with its “morbid symptoms” manifested by a failed order desperately trying to keep itself and its privileges afloat, hucksterism is the latest, or last, symptom of therentier economy.
In the last edition of The Guardian of 2014, the writer David Boyle offered two unfashionable propositions about change.
The first: that “we cling to the real world more tightly as the virtual world presses its claims.” Sales of computer tablets are on the slide, he says; sales of e-books are declining; sales of vinyl records are at an 18-year high. And he references the French historian Jean Gimpel, who died almost 20 years ago, who had anticipated the return of many physical technologies that were supposed to be on their way out, from trams, to cycling, to cotton and natural fibres, to cooking. (Says Boyle: “Those Smash robots, which used to fall about laughing at potato peelers, must be rusting with chagrin.”)
The second: “despite what we are told, technological change is slowing down.” This is a theme of mine here on the next wave, and there is abundant evidence to suggest that the wave of innovation that spanned my great-grandfathers’ lifetimes was far greater, and had far greater impact on everyday lives, than the one I’ve seen, no matter how insistent the Silicon Valley boosterists are on the subject. (See: Hans Rosling, Robert Gordon, David Graeber, for starters.) And also, come to that, that the wave of globalisation in the late 19th century was far more disruptive than its equivalent phase in the late 20th century.
Boyle looks to the transport sector for his example:
I’ve been travelling on Boeing 747s and driving Minis my entire life (I’m 56) … If I was born in 1858 would I still be struggling along in my wagon at New Year 1915? … The notion that technological change is accelerating is based on dubious factoids about the idea that mobile phone penetration into the American market was faster than it was for radio. In reality, the reverse was true.
Happy New Year!
The image at the top of the post is from Death to the Stock Photo.