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Book Review: The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing

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I finished Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class thinking that the parts were rather more than the whole. There’s lots of fascinating statistics, facts and anecdotes, and the idea of the precariat – while already well established in general form in debates about casualisation and commodification of workers – is a useful one, but the author’s determination to fit without a particular political framework, to declare, with a specific set of technical meanings, that this is a new class, weakened rather than strengthened his arguments.

The definition of this class slips and slides all over the place. At one point Standing even seems to suggest that it includes “gays and lesbians [who] feel insecure in a society geared to heterosexual mores and standard nuclear families”. It includes the obvious migrant workers in low pay jobs in meat processing and care, but also, it seems, a 24-year-old social worker on £28K (reported in the Observer) who’s denied the chance to progress in her career, but has to wait for a post to become available.

As the use of a newspaper case study as a key part of the argument in that case shows, it also has the feel of a very 21st-century cut and paste job, with inadequate digestion of the mass of material amassed. Nonetheless, I’d still call it as a well-worth-reading.

The accumulation of the statistics about the decline of the place of the working person is impressive, and depressing. The slide of the Nineties is obvious in US figures – the number of firms offering healthcare benefits fell from 69% in 2000 to 60% in 2009. But the decline had gone on longer – US employers paid 89% of retirement benefits contributions in 1980, 52% by 2006.

Quoting the National Strategic Skills Audit of 2010, England’s fastest growing jobs over the previous decade “included a few modern professions and crafts – conservation officers, town planners, psychologists and hairdressers – but mainly consisted of semi-professional jobs, such as paramedics, legal associates and teachers’ assistants.”

Standing notes how entitlement to benefits is dependent on regular participation in the labour market, or a “breadwinner” in the household. Market demands has to be met to obtain a social income. And there’s determination to force those on benefits into unattractive, unrewarding, hopelessly paid jobs. “Lawrence Mead, an American libertarian invited by Downing Street to advise the British government immediately after it was elected in 2010. His view of claimants is that ‘government must persuade them to blame themselves.”

There’s a genuine international approach, which produces some interesting perspectives. Fascinating that in Japan temporary employees get just 40% of those of salarymen doing much the same job, and are also denied the 20% annual bonus that’s an ordinary part of the latter’s package. They even have to pay more for identical meals in the work canteen. And that the much trumpeted rise in the pay of Foxconn’s “penned workers in Shenzhen”, 96% in total, was accompanied by the removal, unpublicised, of subsidised food, clothing and accommodation. (And workers there are closely watched by CCTV cameras, monitored by a comprehensive databank that monitors their behaviour and character,based on technology developed by the US military. p. 133)

There are now more than 1 billion people aged between 15 and 25 in the world, the largest youth cohort in history. “The world may be ageing, but there are a very large number of young people around, with much to be frustrated about”. In Japan, average earnings of twentysomethings fell by 14% between 1997 and 2008.

Standing is sometimes rather questionably catholic in his use of sources: in 2006, a life insurance survey found that 90% of American women felt financially insecure and nearly half said they had ‘tremendous fear of becoming a bag lady’. And it wanders – one throwaway paragraph sees a “Endarkenment” in the rise of “alternative medicine” in university courses, citing a grab-bag ranging from acupuncture (for which there is some decent evidence, if no good explanation) to aromatherapy, for which there isn’t) – due to a rise of “an emotional way of thinking associated with religion and superstition”.

But I rather like his excursion into the ancient Greek idea of work. There was labour as done by slaves and outsiders, denizens, not citizens, but work, praxis, was what was done by citizens with relatives and friends around the home – acts of citizenship we might say, building civic friendship. “Play was needed for relaxation, but, distinguished from that, the Greeks had a concept of schole, which has a double meaning, signifying leisure and learning, built around participation in the life of the city. Knowledge came from deliberation, from stillness as well as involvement. Aristotle believed some laziness was necessary for proper leisure.”

Standing doesn’t ignore the politics of all of this, although it isn’t his main focus. He quotes a Hansard Society 2010 study on political engagement. It found one in ten voters “committed”, one in 10 “alienated and hostile”. The biggest group, one in four, was the “disengaged distrustful”. “More of the disengaged were inclined to vote Labour than Conservative, but were turned off by what was on offer.”

His prescription? Basic income for all. (He’s utterly opposed to capital or labour subsidies.) To be created from funds not being given to banks, and financial high returns tapped. A Tobin tax, to reduce short-term capital glows. A citizenship tax in rich countries to subsidise poor ones.

“A basic income, delinked from labour, would be decommidifying in that it would give people a greater capacity to live outside the market and be under less pressure to labour. But it could also increase the amount of labour by allowing people to move in and out of the labour market more easily. In other words, it might induce more labour but would do so in conditions of greater security and independence from market pressures. A basic income would also enable citizens to accept low wages and to bargain more strongly. If they judged that a certain amount was all that a potential employer could afford, they might take the job as long as they had enough on which to live.”

What can I say? I agree!

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.