A contribution to an exchange on The Precariat: Today’s Transformative Class?
Bill Fletcher Jr.
In his essay “The Precariat: Today’s Dangerous Class?” Guy Standing describes a very real, well-documented phenomenon: the increasing level of precariousness for millions of working people. However, the problem is that this is not new. It is actually inherent in capitalism. If, for instance, one were to look at the early twentieth century and review the history of the Industrial Workers of the World, one would see a US working class which looked very much like the precariat that Standing suggests exists today.
This leads me to two main concerns.
My first is that Standing is not reviewing the overall history of capitalism and is, instead, focusing on the condition of the North American and West European working classes largely from 1945 to 1975/1980. The longer history of capitalism, time and again, demonstrates an incredibly precarious existence that has included the splitting of one’s life between agriculture and industry, mass internal migrations in search of work, and a shorter lifespan—not to mention the true precariousness of the life of a slave or indentured servant. For most of the existence of capitalism, the working class has been in a precarious state.
The second is that Standing is describing a phenomenon that is having an impact on more than one class. Precariousness, as he describes it, is having an impact on the working class as well as the class referred to as either the petty bourgeoisie or the professional-managerial class. Precariousness in the current era is a reflection of the impact of neoliberal globalization on these two main classes in the advanced capitalist world. For the middle stratum of the professional-managerial class, it is destroying any sense of stability and, as Standing points out, is disconnecting training from income, i.e., increased training need not mean greater income.
The working class in the advanced capitalist world has found itself assaulted by neoliberal globalization, a process that fully unfolded in the mid- to late 1970s. It has resulted in wage and income stagnation, increased debt, declining ability to save, and massive wealth polarization. This has had a disproportionately negative impact on peoples of color in the United States, a fact dramatized in the context of the Great Recession.
The growth of precariousness is resulting in precisely what Standing argues is happening within both classes. As we have now come to understand with regard to the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump’s supporters, contrary to the early narratives that the white working class was revolting, there has been a white nationalist revolt largely based in the middle strata. What makes this fascinating is that it is based not mainly among those who have been directly affected by the economic somersaults of capitalism, but rather by those who fear the pending assault. Added to this, that same stratum among whites view their economic circumstances through a prism of race, this playing itself out—to take an example—in that Trump voters in 2016 were mainly driven by concerns about immigration and terrorism rather than the economy.
The strategic implications of this debate are significant. Standing is correct to identify the real dangers of right-wing populism and neo-fascism within the precariat. He is also correct to identify revolutionary possibilities. I would argue, however, that the precariat must be unpacked a bit more, at least with regard to class.
The implications are threefold:
(1) The working class must fight to build a class consciousness that, in addition to taking on the divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, also appreciates the expanse of the working class itself. This will aim to get the trade union movement, in particular, away from the idea that it is the movement of the “middle class,” rather than a movement of the entirety of the working class. The poor and precarious are as much part of the working class as construction workers.
(2) Active work must be done with the middle strata, a group of classes that appears to default to a view that it is being crushed by both the rich and the poor. Such a default position opens them to right-wing populist solutions. Left and progressive movements must be champions of these classes, whether they are farmers or sales personnel. They are being crushed by neoliberal capital, and they must have relief. This necessitates, at least at the level of reforms, a reorientation of tax policy, economic development, student loans, health care, and myriad other changes.
(3) We must recognize that the so-called “golden age of capitalism,” i.e., the period from 1945 to 1975/1980, was an exception rather than the rule. The assumption that living standards for working people would increase, corresponding to productivity, reflected a particular moment for US capitalism specifically, and Western capitalism more generally. That world has changed, and no demagogue nor any slogans about making “America” great again will alter that. To paraphrase a slogan from the US 1992 presidential campaign, the problem is capitalism, stupid.
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