Special to the Free Press
The globalized economy wants and requires a large, growing pool of part-time and temporary workers with few career prospects, says Guy Standing, professor of development studies at the University of London.
“Labour instability is central to global capitalism,” he says in his latest book, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (London, 2014). “Multinational capital not only wants flexible insecure labour but can also obtain it from any part of the world.” His previous book, also full of insights, was The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, 2011).
Standing defines the precariat as an emerging class “characterized by chronic insecurity, detached from the old norms of labour and the working class. They’re up against not only insecurity but also impoverishment, debt, lack of occupational identity and multiple inequalities.” More and more members of the precariat are forced into disadvantageous economic situations. The undercutting of unions as a collective voice for workers has been largely achieved through unfriendly regulation changes and exposure to low world wage levels, he observes.
Education is quickly being turned into a mere commodity with an almost exclusively utilitarian, practical bent, as demanded by corporations. Many in education, particularly at the post-secondary level, have been driven out into the ranks of the precariat. “There has been a huge growth of ‘teaching adjuncts,’ often on standby, not knowing what and where they will be teaching until the last moment,” Standing says.
The dominant neo-liberal consensus has led to a dramatic erosion of basic security as a human right. Governments deliberately create unemployment to rein in inflation, but then blame the unemployed for their plight. Some officials in the UK have said it is necessary to induce the unemployed to blame themselves, Standing comments.
Politicians and mainstream media more and more often draw the invidious distinction between the unemployed and “a majority of ‘hard-working families’ in society.” There is paternalism, control and snooping against those receiving unemployment insurance benefits, Standing finds. Long called a social right, unemployment benefits have now been denied to most of the unemployed.
In addition, media campaigns create the impression among members of the public that the majority of those on disability are fakers or capable of some work they are not bothering to seek out. In the UK, some have committed suicide when denied essential benefits.
In the current climate of insufficient part-time hours and delayed or denied unemployment insurance benefits, the payday loan industry has boomed, with the tacit approval of many major banks. The exorbitant interest rates on payday loans lead to members of the precariat falling deeper into debt and ultimately into outright debt bondage.
“To the precariat, uncertainty is pervasive,” Standing says. “Where will the next shock come from? What will happen if I lose my job or fall sick? Will I be able to obtain benefits to survive? Will I lose my home? . . .
“In the industrialized world suicides have soared since the onset of austerity,” he continues. “It is not homes and family that drive people to these extremes; it is the lack of society, which the neo-liberal dystopia denies.”
Standing goes on to say the privatization of natural resources under neo-liberalism is in effect expropriation of any fallback the people might still have left. It is getting rid of what remains of the commons, or a common area accessible to the public.
One solution Standing proposes is a basic annual income. It’s interesting that that notable left-wing radical, former U.S. president Richard Nixon, suggested something like it in 1969, early in his first term. A basic annual income would give a basis for at least minimal security and, for the precariat, time for conducting a rational job search.
Members of the precariat who have had their lives devastated by neo-liberal policies should neither forget nor forgive, he advises. They should advocate for truly participatory democracy. Hints of the revival of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the U.S. are a hopeful sign, he says.
A comprehensive Precariat Charter would draw on the tradition established by the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the Chartist movement in England in the middle nineteenth century, and the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The precariat will find unity,” Standing predicts hopefully. But “change can only come if we act, not if we simply complain.”