It has been, as far as I now, the economist Professor Guy Standing who (hitting the bull’s eye!) coined the term “precariat” to replace, simultaneously, the terms “proletariat” and “middle class” – both well beyond their use-by date, fully and truly “zombie terms”, as Ulrich Beck would have undoubtedly classified them. As the blogger hiding under the penname “Ageing Baby Boomer” (http://www.creditcrunch.co.uk/forum/topic/8222-goodbye-proletariat-hello-precariat) suggests,
it is the market that defines our choices and isolates us, ensuring that none of us questions how those choices are defined. Make the wrong choices and you will be punished. But what makes it so savage is that it takes no account of how some people are much better equipped than others – have the social capital, knowledge or financial resources – in order to make good choices.
What “unites” the precariat, integrating that exceedingly variegated aggregate into a cohesive category, is the condition of extreme disintegration, pulverization, atomization. Whatever their provenance or denomination, all precarians suffer – and each suffers alone, each individual suffering being well-deserved individual punishment for individually committed sins of insufficient shrewdness and deficit of industry. Individually born sufferings are all strikingly similar: whether induced by a growing pile of utility bills and college fees invoices, miserliness of wages topped up by the fragility of available jobs and inaccessibility of solid and reliable ones, fogginess of longer-term life prospects, restless spectre of redundancy and/or demotion – they all boil down to existential uncertainty: that awesome blend of ignorance and impotence, and inexhaustible source of humiliation.
Such sufferings don’t add up: they divide and separate the sufferers. They deny commonality of fate. They render calls to solidarity sound ludicrous. Precarians may envy or fear each other; sometimes they may pity, or even (though not too often) like one another. Few of them if any, however, would ever respect another creature ‘like him’ (or her). Indeed, why should s/he? Being “like” I am myself, those other people must be as unworthy of respect as I am and deserve as much contempt and derision as I do! Precarians have good reason to refuse respect to other precarians and not to expect being respected by them in turn: their miserable and painful condition is an indelible trace and a vivid evidence of inferiority and indignity. That condition, all-too-visible however carefully swept under the carpet, testifies that those in authority, people who have the power to allow or to refuse rights, have refused to grant them the rights due to other, “normal” and so respectable, humans. And so it testifies, by proxy, to the humiliation and self-contempt that inevitably follow social endorsement of personal unworthiness and ignominy.
The prime meaning of being “precarious” is, according to OED, to be “held by the favour and at the pleasure of another; hence, uncertain”. The uncertainty dubbed “precariousness” conveys preordained and predetermined a-symmetry of power to act: they can, we can’t. And it’s by their grace that we go on living: yet the grace may be withdrawn at short notice or without notice, and it’s not in our power to prevent its withdrawal or even mitigate its threat. After all, we depend on that grace for our livelihood, whereas they would easily, and with much more comfort and much less worry, go on living had we disappeared from their view altogether…
Originally, the idea of “precariousness” was a gloss over the plight and living experience of the large echelons of hangers-on, boarders and other parasites crowding around the princely and lordly kitchens. It is on the whim of the princes, lords of the manor and other high and mighty like them that their daily bread depended. The boarders owed their hosts/benefactors sycophancy and amusement; nothing was owed to them by their hosts. Those hosts, unlike their present-day successors, had however names and fixed addresses. They since have lost (got free from?) both. The owners of the exquisitely frail and mobile tables at which contemporary precarians are occasionally allowed to sit are summarily called by abstract names like “labour markets”, “economic prosperity/depression cycle”, or “global forces”.
Unlike their liquid-modern descendants a century later, contemporaries of Henry Ford Sr., Morgan, or Rockefeller were denied the ultimate “insecurity weapon” and so unable to recycle the proletariat into precariat. The choice to move their wealth to other places – places teeming with people ready to suffer without murmur any, however cruel factory regime, in exchange for any, however miserable, living wage – was not available to them. Just as their factory hands, their capital was “fixed” to the place: it was sunk in heavy and bulky machinery and locked inside tall factory walls. That the dependence was for those reasons mutual, and that the two sides were therefore bound to stay together for a long, very long time to come, was a public secret of which both sides were acutely aware…
Confronted with such tight interdependence of such a long life-expectancy, both sides had to come sooner or later to the conclusion that it is in their interest to elaborate, negotiate and observe a modus vivendi – that is a mode of coexistence which will include voluntary acceptance of unavoidable limits to their own freedom of manoeuvre and the distance to which the other side in the conflict of interests could and should be pushed. Exclusion was off limits, and so was indifference to misery and denial of rights. The sole alternative open to Henry Ford and the swelling ranks of his admirers, followers and imitators, would have been tantamount to cutting the branch on which they were willy-nilly perched, to which they were tied just as their labourers were to their workbenches, and from which they could not move to more comfortable and inviting places. Transgressing the limits set by interdependence would mean destruction of the sources of their own enrichment; or fast exhausting the fertility of the soil on which their riches have grown and hoped to grow on, year in year out, in the future – perhaps forever. To put it in a nutshell: there were limits to inequality which the capital could survive… Both sides of the conflict had vested interests in preventing inequality to run out of control. And each side had vested interests in keeping the other in the game…
There were, in other words, “natural” limits to inequality and “natural” barriers to social exclusion; the main causes of Karl Marx’s prophecy of the “proletariat’s absolute pauperisation” turning self-refuting and getting sour, and the main reasons for the introduction of the social state, a state taking care of keeping labour in a condition of readiness for employment, to become a “beyond left and right”: a non-partisan issue. Also the reasons for the state needing to protect the capitalist order against the suicidal consequences of leaving unbridled the capitalists’ morbid predilections, their fast-profit-seeking rapacity – and acting on that need by introducing minimal wages or time limits to the working day and week, as well as by legal protection of labour unions and other weapons of workers’ self-defence.
And these were the reasons for the widening of the gap separating the rich and the poor to be halted, or even, as one would say today deploying the current idiom, “turned negative”. To survive, inequality needed to invent the art of self-limitation. And it did – and practiced it, even if in fits and starts, for more than a century. All in all, those factors contributed to at least a partial reversal of the trend: to the mitigation of the degree of uncertainty haunting the subordinate classes and thereby to the relative levelling-up of the strength and chances of the sides engaged in the uncertainty game.
Those factors are now, ever more conspicuously, absent. Proletariat is turning, and fast, into precariat, accompanied by fast expanding chunk of the middle classes. Reversal of this reincarnation is not on the cards. Reshaping the proletariat of yore into a fighting class was heavily power assisted – just as is, in the present-day, the atomization of precariat, its descendant and negation.