“The proletariat is dead! Long live the precariat!”

Many summers ago, just freed from the enforced boredom of high school, I signed up for a course on Marxist economics. Andy, the teen I worked with, asked if I would accompany him. I envied him his dad, a transplanted Marxist Scotsman, and I relished the transgression I was invited to undertake, especially as a recent apostate from Catholicism.

The class was held at the Proletarian Party (PP) headquarters in a shabby, multi-story building in Chicago’s Loop. I realized as soon as we entered their small office and saw at the other end of the room “Lecture Hall” inscribed in gold leaf on a frosted glass door that this was a bizarre escapade. We were greeted by a small clutch of men and invited to enter the Lecture Hall, which was as narrow as the office we had passed through. At one corner stood a small, finely carved wooden lectern facing a matching dark wood galley with three tiered benches.Andy and I dutifully shuffled into the second tier of benches and waited for the lecture to begin, exchanging glances of dismay.The three elderly men in the office who greeted us followed in minutes. The oldest of them, as best I could tell given my young age, quickly took to the lectern while the other two occupied the front row.

The lecture was one of a series on Marx’s own lectures published posthumously as “Value, Price and Profit”. We sat patiently, tried to absorb the content, and at the end of the lecture, we bought a pamphlet or two, engaged in a brief conversation and departed quickly never to return again. I discovered much later that the Proletarian Party had an interesting history that pre-dated the formation of the Communist Party USA. The PP of course had its share of polemics and splits, but it also had a certain modern relevance as a “party of a new kind” – it forsook electoralism for education of the proletariat. The PP was also the inheritor of the entire inventory of the venerable – and still existing – Charles H. Kerr Company, notorious publisher of Karl Marx.

The musty office, the Lecture Hall, as a diminutive imitation of a 19th Century college lecture hall, and the old pamphlets and books, not surprisingly, gave us teens the impression of an era that had passed. Even though a decade later, in France, May’68 exploded, and then the Italian workers revolted in the early 70s, and lastly, Poland’s Solidarnosc shocked the world in 1980, to mention only a few European upsurges of working class rebellion that signaled not a revival, but the demise of the proletariat Mark knew.The class war fought by the proletariat, especially the rebellious industrial workers grimy with soot and sweat as they emerge from the mines and mills, was theirs to loose. Their battles remain inspirational, but to overthrow the system of exploitation that today seems more secure in its hold on our lives requires an analysis devoid of nostalgia.

“The proletariat is dead! Long live the precariat!” This slogan, heard in Europe for more than a decade, resonates not at all in America. Which is ironic since the world battle plan of the economic elite in this country gave rise to the precariat. This portmanteau of precarious and proletariat was coined by academics in the 1980s, and was adopted by youthful organizers of European workplaces and street protests a dozen years ago. Precarious employment, of course, predates the financial crisis by many years (in fact, it is endemic to capitalism), but the rebellion of educated but unemployed and underemployed youth is new.

Guy Standing, currently Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, saw this phenomenon of tenuous employment developing over the decades while working as the Director of Socio-Economic Security Program of the International Labor Organization (ILO) an agency of the UN. Work After Globalization, Standing’s major scholarly exposition, published a few years ago, documents the worldwide changes in the structure of employment, from the central role of industrial jobs, with their union protections and economic security, to the marginal position of “flexible” labor. The precariat, a class-in-formation, as he defines it, is introduced in that volume and elaborated upon several years later in an agitational book The Precariat: The Dangerous Class. Dangerous because the precariat not anchored to party affiliation, since none advocates for it, could opt for a disruptive, vindictive populist demagogue.

In Standing’s current book,  A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens he takes a more positive attitude; buoyed by the worldwide urban occupations, he lays out a programmatic approach to a future politics that extends beyond the educated, but jobless youth of the squares – the precariat that journalists identify. For Standing, the precariat also encompasses all those who have lost the assurances of the capitalists’ grand bargain: income and job security for acquiescence to the demands of production – as defined by the boss. He includes in his definition the traditional proletariat, many of whom are now de-skilled and deprived of benefits, if not without work entirely due to outsourcing. That other major element of the workforce doing the most menial tasks in over-developed economies worldwide – the immigrants – is the precariat, too. Immigrants, as Standing elaborates, lack more than economic security; they lack the political power of citizenship, which is why they are characterized as the denizens – those individuals who inhabit a kind of limbo between citizenship and complete illegality, barely surviving in a marginal, informal economy. The other two sectors, the proles and the youth, gravitate towards denizen status as they increasingly lose some rights of citizenship when they become dependent on welfare.

The Charter

A Precariat Charter – Why a charter? As Standing says, charters are unifying documents and he refers to the disparate elements in 19th century England who demanded reforms of all sorts but who had no coherent approach. The Chartists, as they came to be called, wrote a list of demands that represented the range of grievances and in so doing united what were otherwise contending parties. Another more immediate example of the power of a charter, that Standing does not mention, is the document that the democratic dissidents of Czechoslovakia issued in 1977 called, appropriately enough, Charter 77. This document galvanized the democratic opposition, throughout Eastern Europe.

With A Precariat Charter, Standing hopes to similarly unite the various sectors of the precariat behind twenty-nine articles covering some obvious concerns of the precariat, like student debt, immigrant rights, payday loans, just-in-time job schedules and workfare. Bureaucratic hurdles to gain welfare benefits are also targeted for reform in the articles of the Charter, along with discrimination against the disabled. The many outrages the poor confront daily by the appropriately named “servants of the State” are unreservedly condemned in the Charter. However, there are several articles that move beyond the expected planks of precarian rights and stand out as defining its more radical side.

The first article of the Charter demands that the definition of work be extended to include the unpaid work we perform to maintain and care for family members, especially the young and the elderly. But there is also the work it takes to simply maintain a job or seek one; whole days are easily wasted spent looking for a job. Standing calls this work-for-labor – “work linked to jobs [and seeking them] that is unremunerated and unrecognized.” On top of all this, there is the work done by interns and volunteers especially for non-profits that have to a great extent do the tasks that the state abandoned.

Extending the definition of work is Standing’s retort to the laborist – or what we call in the US, the workerist – policies that blindly call for more jobs no matter how meaningless, de-spiriting or environmentally damaging they may be. There is work that needs to be done, that’s useful and rewarding, but which corporate bosses ignore along with politicians and policy wonks who pursue their agendas of growth by all necessary means.

Occupational communities

But extending the definition of work makes little sense if there is no way to promote the status of workers’ interests in new areas, besides defending workers’ currently exploited. To address this need for affiliation Standing proposes, as another article in the charter, that the precariat organize into occupational communities. He envisions these as a hybrid of the medieval guilds and the craft and industrial unions that, more or less, replaced them as capitalism gained ascendency. The guilds, controlled by masters of a skill or a practice, represented occupational identity, education and camaraderie while the unions exist today primarily to represent the workers during bargaining for contracts and to settle grievances.

Occupational communities would differ from traditional labor unions in that they would be organized by skills and educational accomplishments, with the members determining and regulating competency; it would no longer be the prerogative of the bosses to rank workers. The role of the guilds to determine skill has been lost to the state that now licenses almost a third of the workers in the US. In Europe, this situation is worse.

Vibrant occupational communities would then replace workplaces as the site of organizing and become the centers of working life. Occupational communities, as I envision them, might begin as virtual communities, must quickly attain a physical presence and develop into an institution that doesn’t exist today – a combination hiring hall, training center (to advance one’s skills), recreation center, dining hall, – in other words, a pleasant hang out for those with similar interests. The idea here is to end the domination of the labor market and the bosses’ exclusive power to hire and fire. The strongest craft and industrial unions had similar, though more modest, arrangements decades ago; few traditional hiring halls remain.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who “organized the workers, not the job,” as Standing mentions, adopted this basic principle of workers’ power over their employment and fought for it amongst agricultural workers to dockhands (stevedores). Any similarity between occupational communities and the IWW, or any variety of syndicalism, however, ends there, at the point of production. The precariat do not envision an entire society organized by craft and job role, especially as automation eliminates employment not only in the over-developed regions, but also in varying degrees throughout the world.

So then one must ask, why suggest, as jobs decline, a modern version of the guilds as the precariat’s necessary response? The immediate answer is that the organized workforce needs at least a voice, if not total control, over the consequences of that decline? And who will agitate for useful work? There is a more philosophical answer: Standing maintains, long with the classic texts of democracy, that associations of individuals (committed to a goal, I would add) are essential for a well-functioning democratic society. How else do individuals bind themselves to a community but by associating with others?

The proposal for occupational communities is not so farfetched in the US. Aren’t the fast-food servers, Amazon’s warehouse workers and Wal-mart’s “associates” disrupting the premier precarious worksites functioning as fledgling occupational communities? These workers are probably the best-organized precariat in the world, and though they are not agitating for radically changing the nature of their work, their demands for better pay and labor union-level security are gaining support across the country. By utilizing a grassroots approach that relies primarily on gathering community support for their campaigns, these workers have exerted political pressure to win major wage gains thereby validating this tactic across a spectrum of poorly paid workers.

Raising the wages of these jobs makes them a bit more tolerable, but still these are awful jobs that no one wants to make a life’s career. And even at $15 per hour the American Dream is unattainable. And in the wings awaits the prototype automated burger-maker that will displace four or five workers and need only one “feeder” to operate. Small vacuum-sized robots already scurry up and down warehouse aisles picking orders with tireless effort. Given these “advances” in production, job security and high wages may be a chimera for many low-pay workers who will have even less success preventing automation than the previous generations of industrial workers.

The point here is to see the precariat creatively organizing, like with hiring halls, for the short-term goal of higher wages as the first salvo in a new kind of class struggle. The longer-term goal is to build a movement for greater security, more freedom and a better livelihood than capitalism can offer. Not more jobs, but, as Standing says, useful work. Capitalism seems incapable of either. If capitalism can’t deliver the goods, to paraphrase Edwin Starr – Capitalism! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Basic Income

Wages, that is, economic security must be divorced from jobs. We need a guaranteed annual income, or as it is called in many countries, Basic Income (BI). This demand is another article in A Precariat Charter and a proposal that Standing supports and agitates for as the co-president of the European Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). There is also a US group called Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). These organizations advocate a modest income given to all, with no means tests (like those imposed on SSI recipients), but as a birthright to cover essential needs and eliminate the struggle for subsistence by the working poor. The assumption is that most people receiving Basic Income would work, but maybe not full-time, and maybe at tasks they devise that suit them. In other words, the labor market would be a sellers’ (the workers’) market.

BI raises the possibility of better working conditions, higher pay, less stress from long hours, and so forth. Those squat robots in warehouses may still exist to do boring jobs, but that hamburger-making machine may not survive. Who will eat cheap fast food in an economy that has slowed down with a shorter working day? And for some who can live frugally, no working day at all. More importantly, if they found a niche for that machine, would the sole worker supplying raw meat, buns and salad to the machine’s orifices last very long in such a tedious job? The goal of a society based on human values, not economic ones, means that the machines serve the operators and not the other way round.

Free time from pointless tasks and more meaningful work can be developed by those who, for example, want to pursue a craft, but have had no time to develop skill, or those who yearn to do a socially useful task, but couldn’t afford to before. Maybe the town’s antique merry-go-round will be restored, or possibly the old abandoned movie theater will be transformed into a community playhouse, and scores of other socially useful tasks, many related to restoring the environment, that today go undone might entice people to take on for pleasure.

The dystopia epitomized by hamburger machines seems the more likely future because the power elite, bent on wholesale environmental destruction and generalized corruption, propels us on a bleak trajectory. Standing unreservedly situates himself in the camp of utopia when he extols the insights on work of the ancient Greeks. Granted that Greek abundance was based on human slavery, while ours should depend, as Paul Lafargue believed, on machine slavery, the Greeks nonetheless cultivated values and habits in their everyday lives that appear fantastical to us. To quote Standing:

The main aim of the [Greek male] citizen was to free up time for leisure, for schole, which was understood as the time and space to participate in the life of the polis (community), in the agora, the commons, the open social spaces. Schole was a combination of learning and public participation; it was intrinsically political. (11)

From classical Greek times, the red threads of a leisurely life are woven into the tapestry of European history and clearly were evident in the 19th century when the Utopians, who admired the colorful weave of this tradition, wished to extend it. And even Karl Marx, the critic of utopians, wanted to have time everyday to philosophize. We are not talking about eliminating all jobs, just the most stupid and boring of them, and reducing the time people spend at the rest. Necessary work, the kind that often is undervalued today, may be the most physically exhausting and should be shared in a just society. The security of a modest income that frees people from the exhaustion of a full-time job might make it more likely that difficult tasks would be shared.

Inequality, always expressed in monetary terms, also applies to time. The wealthy have little problem filling their days spending their money. And the destitute, who appear to have a surplus of time because they are not working, in fact, fill their days hustling for survival. Condemning the poor for a terrible work ethic is the height of absurdity, especially coming from the über-wealthy.

Who Pays For It?

If only the rich defended the standard of self-abuse imposed upon the groveling masses, the idea that time could be recaptured for better uses, would be a simple task. However, the generalized “escape from freedom,” that Erich Fromm documented in his book with that title, when it comes to production takes the form of the work ethic, which excuses workaholicism Instead we should all be eager to fight for freedom from work. The major obstacle to implementing a system of guaranteed income for all, however, isn’t the remnants of the old Calvinism, as much as the belief that the costs of BI are prohibitive – an absurdity given the US military budget, not to mention the bank bailouts.

Standing’s retort to the argument of high costs has been honed over the many years that he has been active making the case for BI. His proposal, another article in the charter, is that “democratic sovereign wealth funds” be created by taxing the profits from resource-based production. The fund created by these revenues would then be invested and the earnings distributed equally as a social dividend to people. The Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), set up in 1976 to distribute oil revenues, operates essentially on this model. Every year the residents of Alaska, including children, share a dividend that has averaged $1,500 recently.

The APF is popular amongst advocates of BI: lauded by them as the beginnings of an income fund that transcends the divisive politics of right/left and that can be demonstrated as a pragmatic approach to the larger issues of distributing income in a equitable way. And it works, in the US Alaska rates best on economic equality. But are we to trade income security for accelerating climate change? A pact with the devil to extract the wealth from hell hardly suits the angels of justice.

Resources however can extend beyond the prime targets of financial speculation – coal, gas and oil along with ores and metals. Resources need not be extractive; they can be renewable. In some European countries, communities earn an income from the wind and solar power that they generate. Almost anything can be a resource – from water to software – and instead of private interests earning rents from them, they could be the basis for communal support.

The Commons

What we are talking about here is the commons and Standing wants to revive it, not simply as a source of funds to finance a guaranteed income for all, but more importantly as an arena for what he calls “deliberative democracy.” The commons today serves as a model, for instance with community gardens, of grassroots governance. European cities have a long history of setting aside, and protecting, land for use as vegetable gardens, called allotments. For several decades now American cities adopted a similar program to meet demands for what was, initially, a more enriched social life. However, the popularity of community plots increased as dire news depicted our corporate food system, in its quest for profits, as poisonous. What began as a pastime –  “urban farming” – evolved into a charged political statement. On weekends, when the office-worker gardeners descend onto their plots, a verdant agora takes shape. From many of these humble beginnings, communities across the country have reversed a trend and opened cooperative food stores on a pace not seen in many decades. And cooperatives, as democratically run economic institutions – one person, one vote – are commons.

However, free access to the internet and shared software is more widely recognized as a model of the commons, certainly with the tech-savvy section of the precariat, who view the commons as much virtual as material. This is precisely why Standing sees the wired precariat as the leading sector of the precariat – they have the ability to organize swiftly and effectively as we have seen in Spain (Podemos) and in Italy (Five Star Movement).

Amongst some, the commons is recognized as a response to the democratic deficit – or to use Standing’s preferred term – “the thinning of democracy.” Standing however has a more nuanced view of social change than many of the popularizers of commoning. He sees the precariat as still in need of forming itself into an agent of change – a class-for-itself – to agitate for the commons. The commons needs that; the commons will not come about by wishing it so.

At its peak of economic power, the traditional proletariat was a fighting class that secured the benefits of the welfare state through the social democratic politics that it helped to shape at that time. Unfortunately, as Standing laments, we are still stuck with the outmoded political concepts that arose at the time when the industrial proletariat had power. We need a new politics.

A new politics

The center of this new politics in the Age of the Precariat must be a new organizational form to galvanize this new class into a fighting force of class struggle – occupational communities. As mentioned above, we may be seeing these slowly develop as low paid workers (and contract workers) begin to organize and fight their corporate bosses, but they are still at a very early stage of formation and their future is unclear. To become the fighting machine in a new class war they still have to be battled-tested on the fields of race and gender, for instance. The boss class is expert on creating dissension in the ranks of workers. One need only refer to the social divisions employers enforced in the early labor movement. However, women, blacks and immigrants often find themselves in identical situations, and the recognition of commonality in struggle begins to define class.

There are five assets that should be central to a transformative movement of a new class according to Standing. And the first is security. This is only partially understood as a demand by the organized section of the American precariat. There is an illusion that the precariously employed need to regain what the old labor movement had. The security that workers achieved in the expanding industrial realm, where it was assumed, by both the workers and the employers, that one had a job for life, does not hold for the service sector. Real security can only be achieved when economic security is recognized as a right on the same level as political rights, and this is the basis for demanding a guaranteed income for all. This is the foundation of a new politics.

The second element of precarian politics involves control of time. And here too, the fight for better wages and working conditions implies gaining some control of one’s work schedule, but this is not much better than asking for a longer leash. At the very least, the demand should be to share jobs and work less, so that individuals can steal time back from the boss for their use. Again, this requires a substantial economic cushion in the form of basic income.

The third aspect of a new politics requires “access to and control of quality space.” For decades squatting defined a robust faction of political opposition and for far longer artists and crafts workers have sought space to work in. Today co-working spaces and Hubs for the officeless precariat are sprouting everywhere, but Standing has something else in mind. The “quality space” in question must provide a venue for the practice of democratic deliberation, like the occupied squares. The worldwide occupations, with all their flaws, were a necessary first step, a precursor, in a process that had to begin with the recognition that the mass of humanity, while not agreeing on an agenda, did agree on defining the enemy. The isolated precariat found her and himself reflected in square after square as the occupations spread and this formed a basis, in more places than the corporate press will report, for further collaborations. New spaces are needed to create a new politics.

The fourth element is education. It should be stated immediately that this is not “education for innovation” or some such bullshit, but something completely outlandish like “education for a fuller life.” Education should be free and it should extend throughout life. And instead of what passes for higher education, or adult education, I think it should look more like a grouping of writers, artists, crafts people, inventors or whatever, who attract a following much like the medieval scholars and circuses. Black Mountain College, Bread and Puppet Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe are all historic examples of education morphing into, creation, agitation and community to create new knowledge and to revive traditional wisdom. The last element in Standing’s list is financial capital, which was covered above with the discussion of democratizing sovereign wealth funds and the commons.

Conclusion

A Precariat Charter carries a European accent; can it be understood in the US? I am certain that Standing believes it can and so do I. However, there are some obscure colloquialisms to overcome for it to be understood in the US. Two stand out. In Europe, many people understand the Basic Income argument, not so here. While several pundits have endorsed it, including recently Robert Reich, and Jacobin publishes favorable articles regularly, there is no significant grassroots group that has adopted it and supports it. (Not surprisingly, there is one in Canada) And the same can be said of the term (and concept) “precariat.” It may never translate well and that could be fine if the momentum for better wages links up with the unemployed. This is where the hiring hall comes in; it could become the center for questioning a range of labor related issues.

Alliances of the working poor and the poor at working won’t itself create a movement of the precariat like the one that Standing outlines. The next hurdle to surmount if actual collaboration occurs will be the most difficult, especially given the workerist legacy of the old labor movement that so many still worship and which confines possibilities of new labor struggles against work as we know it. I believe that environmentalists could checkmate the senseless drive for more jobs before social justice groups get around to mounting a critique. This may seem an unlikely prospect since the only time (some) environmentalists united with social justice groups and labor was to agitate for Green Jobs, a demand that has disappeared faster than a magician’s rabbit, but it’s not inconceivable.

If a radical force developed within environmentalism that could get traction for a policy of de-growth (another European term that translates poorly) coupled with a program of mitigating the effects of climate change, then there’s a possibility that what constitutes a “quality job” – supporting nature – could displace the nonsense that a “good job” is determined by the size of the paycheck. And further, given that US Farm Policy for years paid farmers for not working (The Soil Bank), a novel environmental demand could be to extend that benefit to the extractive industries and pay oil and coal workers to find pleasurable, non polluting, pursuits?

These musings are easily ridiculed and yet reading A Precariat Charter two short years after his preceding book, The Precariat: The Dangerous Class should caution us from assuming that we are being realistic when we think history moves in predictable ways. On the heels of the previous book’s bleak tone, The Charter accurately depicts a more optimistic future. Standing’s evidence for a more positive outlook is mainly European. Certainly, the spectacular rise of Podemos in Spain about the time of the book’s publication seems to confirm Standing’s analysis.

Here in the US we have less certainty about the political power of our indigenous precariat. While the lack of a conscious precariat network of rebellious participants as exists in Europe must be considered a major drawback, no one can deny that in the past few years the working poor have waged a very combative grassroots fight. Whether they can develop the autonomy that they will need to take their fight to the terrain that A Precariat Charter depicts, is uncertain. One thing is certain though, no social change of any significance will occur without a new class struggle.

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Postscript etc., Of course, like its historic precursor, the precariat hopefully will abolish itself and not live forever. The title is a provocation as are most of my titles. Maybe this is an adolescent addiction influenced and sustained by my love of 60s music. Or possibly I spent too much time thinking of marketing ploys when I worked. Or maybe I am just stupid! If it is a burden, I carry it lightly.