In the final sentence of his 2011 study The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing writes, “The precariat is not victim, villain or hero — it is just a lot of us.” It’s an unexpectedly banal note for the end of what reads as a definitive break from the identity politics that have defined the leftist political activities of at least two previous generations. Standing chronicles the rise of a class that he calls the precariat — the increasing number of workers around the world who lack stable employment, housing, and healthcare — analyzing its origins, current manifestations, and critically to its danger, its lack of class consciousness.
The term has picked up steam in recent months, adorning the pages — or websites — of publications and venues as diverse as The New York Times, Salon, and radical anarcho-syndicalist blogs. But who, really, is denoted by Standing’s “us”?
The term in its most recent incarnation strikes me as most closely aligned to its use by the Italian Autonomists in the 1970s. The Autonomists saw precarity as capital’s response to Italian workers’ rejection of jobs for life in favor of more flexibility to determine their own labor conditions. This means that for the Autonomists, regular, contractual work was not the opposite of precarity, since these conditions merely “produc[e] the anxiety that results from the ‘financialisation of daily life’ ”. Though the Italian Autonomists did not necessarily embrace precarity as an unqualified good, they nonetheless saw powerful potential in the rejection of stable employment, particularly its ability to unite an otherwise disparate population under a more capacious understanding of work and labor. This sounds, to me, an awful lot like Standing’s “it’s just a lot of us.”
Though I admire these lofty aims, the Autonomists’ big tent approach to labor organization risks losing the very real distinctions between the economic and material conditions of different subjects. Is an upper-class student with access to familial resources as precarious as a single mother working at a fast food restaurant laid off for sounding the alarm against sexual harassment at work?
At the time, the Italian Communist party (PCI) asked similar questions. They contended that freedom from work and the universal wage could be a revolutionary demand only if it were universalized — extended to all people across the globe without exception. It was a prospect that was, at least at that moment, totally unfeasible. In the absence of that universality, the demand to receive a livable salary without having to work for it merely displaced the obligation to work onto other workers beyond Italy’s borders: people in China, for instance, would make cars and grow cabbages, and the people in Italy would stay home and play cards, as Bennett Carpenter, a doctoral candidate in the Literature Department at Duke recently put it in an email to me. This, the PCI said, was bourgeois privilege masquerading as radicalism, and I think they were at least partially right. While “precarity” can successfully bring together various constituencies under one umbrella, shifting the locus of community away from a shared identity and towards a unity forged through a resistance to the terrors of neoliberal capitalism, it can also efface the differences between these groups and once again displace the struggles of the poor.
Even a brief survey of current uses of the term in high, low, and middlebrow mainstream media bears out this risk. In a recent manifesto-style post about capitalism and anxiety, the authors qualify their discussion of the shift away from capitalist-induced boredom by writing,
The discussion here is not fully relevant to the global South… The South has experienced a particular variety of precarity distinct from earlier periods: the massive forced delinking of huge swathes of the world from global capitalism (especially in Africa), and the correspondingly massive growth of the informal sector, which now eclipses the formal sector almost everywhere.
While I applaud the injunction against false universalizing in favor of cultural, historical, and national specificity, it proves an harbinger of less-understandable exclusions.
After all, it’s not just workers in the global South — a whopping 50% of the world’s population — who fail to qualify as precarious. This winter, Rebecca Schuman and Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Tenured Radical came to (fiberoptic) blows over a discussion of interviewing practices in higher education. Using increasingly overwrought pronouncements about unfair hiring practices, the pair described adjunct professors and graduate students as the most exploited members of a rigged game, the disjecta membra of the knowledge industry. Never once did either mention the plight of dining service workers, janitors, or groundskeepers at universities. Their idea of exploitation apparently failed to register either as academic labor or precarity.
Even the New York Times has thrown its hat in the ring. In a piece titled “The American Precariat,” columnist David Brooks notes that “Only 46 percent of white Americans believe they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, the lowest levels in the history of the General Social Survey.” Though Brooks’s column opens with a discussion of nationwide efforts to organize fast food workers demanding higher pay, he quickly turns from this anecdote toward the true evidence of inequity: the tribulations of white Americans.
Standing’s “us” seems to consist largely of freelance professionals, artists, and academics, especially grads and adjuncts. Though the term as used today locates precarity as a general problem of the neoliberal economy, when mapped onto traditional identity categories, the invocation of these occupations code the paradigmatic precarious worker as implicitly and often explicitly white, male, educated, cis-gendered, straight, and located within the United States or western Europe. None of this is to say, of course, that adjuncts and grads, men, occupants of the global North, white people, and displaced professionals are not exploited. Still, I find the term’s recapitulation of hierarchical structures of race, class, gender, nationality, and sexuality telling.
The term’s exclusions also bear comment. Though I could have overlooked the errant mention here or there, I could find few instances where the word “precarity” came up when discussing the recent spate of fast food workers strikes across the country, unless these strikes served as an analogy for the situation of traditionally higher-paid occupations. When Gary Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, titles his searing critique of U.S. universities’ reliance upon poorly-compensated adjunct labor “Adjunct Professors are the New Working Poor,” I have to ask: what about the old working poor? Likewise, bloggers and columnists often conjure up the immiserated labor conditions of the global South only to warn their readers of all that the United States can and should never become. “Watch out!” these headlines warn, “Or the United States will end up like those irreparably nasty and humid countries beneath the equator.” Liberté, fraternité, égalité indeed.
There are, of course, notable exceptions, in particular when it comes to calls for adjunct organizing drives. As Maria Maisto, Joseph A. McCartin, and Jacob Swenson wrote for the Huffington Post, academic workers have much to learn from the rank and file tactics of low-wage workers. Yet despite their reverence for non-knowledge producers, Maisto et al’s suggestion nonetheless begs the question: if the OUR Walmart and Fast Food Forward campaigns “show that even workers who have divergent interests, and who may even be employed by different companies can organize together for change,” why can’t academic workers organize alongside of, rather than separate from, these groups?
This is the impression I get from looking at the television set, as Allen Ginsberg put it. University workers other than administrators and knowledge producers are not precarious. Nor are their compatriots and sometime second-shift alter egos, those low-wage workers outside the academy: fast food employees, bartenders, factory workers, and waiters and waitresses. Undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation are not precarious. Migrant laborers are not precarious. Workers in the global South, including those who work in Western-run calling centers are not precarious. Though I can hardly imagine work more imperiled by the vicissitudes of the market, manager, and customer, sex workers are not precarious. Put bluntly, professionals lacking stable employment are precarious, while those in similar circumstances outside of this class position are simply poor.
But my critique is as much about the term’s political and theoretical limitations as it is about its boundaries. In its current usage, precarity has become largely a descriptive category.
Due to its lack of focus on the structural conditions of late capitalism — conditions that surely demand a more capacious understanding of the plight and figure of the precariat — precarity fails to consider the system in its totality. Because of these limitations, precarity as inscribed in the popular and academic press has become a way to maintain the status quo by creating a designation that largely includes only displaced professionals. These lapses make it difficult to organize around the conclusions the term draws because, as little more than a descriptor of the status quo, precarity can only compulsively reiterate these conclusions. And so, as Lenin so aptly put it over a century ago, what is to be done?
It is high time for displaced professionals to organize alongside of, strike with, and support fast food and other low-wage workers. Many intellectuals and others, for good reason, hesitate to get involved in these kinds of cross-racial and cross-class struggles: is this a kind of noblesse oblige, cultural imperialism, or racism under a different name, they ask. These are good questions and ones that must be asked relentlessly. But they should be asked, in my opinion, from within, rather than outside of these movements.
Solidarity, after all, is a precarious formation. It is about vulnerability, contingency, and the repeated renegotiating of one’s position with every encounter. It is fleeting, changing, and dependent upon the consent of multiple individuals. It is both drudgery and fright.
This kind of solidarity organizing has recently grown in popularity on college and university campuses. Groups like the University of California student workers union, the Graduate Employees and Student Workers Union at Yale, the Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia, the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Subconference of the Modern Language Association, all explicitly devote some if not all of their energies to supporting low-wage workers and rallying besides them. Conceiving of solidarity as an embodied practice and a partnership in this way fundamentally restructures the social basis of community and our reliance upon others. This is not to universalize falsely, but rather to shift the conversation away from an insistence on sameness, and towards the political and epistemological benefits of brokering difference. This is the essential work of solidarity, which entails recognition, an understanding of the limitations of one’s own subjectivity, and a commitment to collective exploration and action.
Correction: an earlier version of this piece incorrectly spelled Rebecca Schuman’s last name.