Anothercritique in Standing’s historical outline of the development of the precariatis the claim that it is ‘new’.
Standing seems to be of the opinion that theprecariat is distinct and new in its experience of precarity. Insecurity,unemployment and precariousness are hardly new conditions. The working classeshave been struggling with this for centuries.
In 1982 a dock worker recounted “Docklaboring is at all times a precarious and uncertain mode of existence”(Seymour, 2012). The agrarian proletariat of early modern England were just asvulnerable to fluctuating demand for labour. As old as capitalism, suchinsecurity has always charecterised substantial margins of the economy. Anumber of scholars regard the Fordist security and union protectionism of theindustrial era as the historic exception, not precarity (Frase, 2013). Acrossacademia, there has been controversy surrounding the reconceptualisation ofPrecarity from a condition to a class. Martin Jorgensen (2015) provides aninteresting argument against the precariat being a distinct new social class.
He argues that the precariat and precarity are understood to have aperformative component and as an everyday phenomenon. He states that the termPrecarity is used as a mode for analysing economy and for rethinkingheterogeneous identities and group formations under neoliberal capitalism. Itis not understood as constituting a class, but drawing on experiences frompolitical activist perspectives. Precarity becomes a point of departure forcreating a common space for social struggles and for producing new politicalsubjectivities. In response to commentators claiming that precariousness is asocial condition or performative component, Standing states that ‘a socialcondition does not act, it does not have human agency’ (Standing, 2014).
Oneof the key pieces of literature opposing Standing presents a critique ofStanding’s conceptualisation of the precariat on two principle grounds. ErikWright (2016) rationalises that the precariat is neither a class in terms ofthe differentiation of class interests for workers, or in terms of the unity ofinterests across its segments. First, it is argued that, the material interestsof the precariat and the working class are not sufficiently opposed to each otherfor them to constitute two distinct classes. Secondly, he argues that acrossthe various segments of the precariat, the optimal strategies for securing alivelihood are not sufficiently unified for the precariat as a whole toconstitute a class. He writes that people in a class should share broadlysimilar optimal strategies for securing a livelihood. Standing identifies thethree main sub-categories of the precariat as being; people who have been marginalizedfrom the working class, migrants and ethnic minorities, and well educated,potentially former ‘salariat’ workers.
Wright argues that in the case of theprecariat, the different segments identified by Standing have sharply differentstrategies of survival and advancement and therefore cannot constitute a class.Forthe claim that the Precariat is class with distinct features and materialinterests to be legitimate, it would seem sensible to assume there must beother groups with opposing features and material interests. Standing’s analysiscontrasts the precariat and the ‘salariat’, defined through privileges such assecure employment, sick leave and pension schemes, often employed by thegovernment. This distinction between precariat and salariat has met heavycriticism (Jørgensen, 2016; Allen,2014). It could be arguedthat Standing is presenting an exaggerated, or even fictitious image of theprivileged ‘salariat’ in order to establish a space for a new ‘class’ withdifferent interests, namely the precariat. The crude distinction betweenprecarious and non-precarious workers should be disputed.
Many workers willhave part-time or fixed term temporary work at one point in their lives andpermanent contracts at others. In the 2008 economic recession, there weresevere cuts to public services, highlighting the fact that all workers can findthemselves in a more or less precarious position (Choonara, 2011). Thebroadening base of the precariat is one of the primary flaws in Standing’sclaim that the precariat is a distinct class. If one can belong to both groups,the precariat and salariat it can be argued that neither are a distinct socialclass. Precarity is affecting people of all classes, but those that performprecarious labour do not constitute a class.Inconclusion, there is considerable validity in the criticisms of Standing’s workby those influenced by Marxism. Standings analysis of the precariat as a classis theoretically flawed from a Marxist perspective, which Standing refers to.
Furthermore, precariousness is a condition that exerts effects right up thechain of class strata, with people defined by Standing as being in the’salariat’ and ‘proletariat’ both able to experience precarious labour. If onecan belong to both groups; precariat and salariat, it can be argued that neitherare a distinct social class. Despite this the concept should not be dismissed.It clearly denotes something important; precarity is rising and is affecting ahuge number of people. Precarious labour and social precarity are misunderstoodif boxed into an ’emerging class’ thesis.
Treating the precariat as a classobscures more than it clarifies.