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The Precariat

February 28, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

Or precarized proletariat (link to video… do watch the entire thing, it is well worth 10 minutes of your time).

And if you think this is limited to low-incomes, think again:

“Western Europeans and Americans are about to suffer a profound shock. For the past 30 years governments have explained that, while they can no longer protect jobs through traditional forms of state intervention such as subsidies and tariffs, they can expand and reform education to maximise opportunity. If enough people buckle down to acquiring higher-level skills and qualifications, Europeans and Americans will continue to enjoy rising living standards. If they work hard enough, each generation can still do better than its parents. All that is required is to bring schools up to scratch and persuade universities to teach “marketable” skills.

(…)

But the financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent squeeze on incomes is slowly revealing an awful truth. As figures out last week from the Office for National Statistics show, real UK wages have not risen since 2005, the longest sustained freeze in living standards since the 1920s. While it has not hit the elite in banking, the freeze affects most of the middle class as much as the working class. This is not a blip, nor the result of educational shortcomings. In the US, which introduced mass higher education long before Britain, the average graduate’s purchasing power has barely risen in 30 years. Just as education failed to deliver social democratic promises of social equality and mobility, so it will fail to deliver neoliberal promises of universal opportunity for betterment.

(…)

We are familiar with the outsourcing of routine white-collar “back office” jobs such as data inputting. But now the middle office is going too. Analysing X-rays, drawing up legal contracts, processing tax returns, researching bank clients, and even designing industrial systems are examples of skilled jobs going offshore. Even teaching is not immune: last year a north London primary school hired mathematicians in India to provide one-to-one tutoring over the internet. Microsoft, Siemens, General Motors and Philips are among big firms that now do at least some of their research in China. The pace will quicken. The export of “knowledge work” requires only the transmission of electronic information, not factories and machinery. Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has estimated that a quarter of all American service sector jobs could go overseas.

Western neoliberal “flat earthers” (after Thomas Friedman’s book) believed jobs would migrate overseas in an orderly fashion. Some skilled work might eventually leave but, they argued, it would make space for new industries, requiring yet higher skills and paying better wages. Only highly educated westerners would be capable of the necessary originality and adaptability. Developing countries would obligingly wait for us to innovate in new areas before trying to compete.

(…)

It suggests neoliberals made a second, perhaps more important error. They assumed “knowledge work” would always entail the personal autonomy, creativity and job satisfaction to which the middle classes were accustomed. They did not understand that, as the industrial revolution allowed manual work to be routinised, so in the electronic revolution the same fate would overtake many professional jobs. Many “knowledge skills” will go the way of craft skills. They are being chopped up, codified and digitised.

Brown, Lauder and Ashton call this “digital Taylorism”, after Frederick Winslow Taylor who invented “scientific management” to improve industrial efficiency. Call centres, for example, require customers to input a series of numbers, directing you to a worker, possibly in a developing country, who will answer questions from a prescribed package. We are only at the beginning; even teaching is increasingly reduced to short-term, highly specific goals, governed by computerised checklists.

Digital Taylorism makes jobs easier to export but, crucially, changes the nature of much professional work. Aspirant graduates face the prospect not only of lower wages, smaller pensions and less job security than their parents enjoyed but also of less satisfying careers. True, every profession and company will retain a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers at the top – perhaps 10% or 15% of the total – but the mass of employees, whether or not they hold high qualifications, will perform routine functions for modest wages. Only for those with elite qualifications from elite universities (not all in Europe or America) will education deliver the promised rewards.

(…)

Governments will then need to rethink their attitudes to education, inequality and the state’s economic role.”

But they will not, not until they get forced to do it. And even then, I don’t think our power elite can think outside of the neoliberal frame.

Also: (I haven’t read it yet. I’m waiting for the paperback to come out here)

Posted in Labor, Precarization, Public Policy | 7 Comments »



7 Responses to “The Precariat”

  1.   Jacob Richter Says:

    To paraphrase Marx:

    Considering, that against this combined power of the elite classes the primary producers or precariat cannot unite and act for itself except by constituting itself into a mass party-movement, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties and movements, that this constitution of the precariat into a mass party-movement is indispensable in order to ensure the emancipation of its labour power,

    That such labour power can be emancipated only when, at minimum, the precariat is in collective possession of all means of societal production, all commons, etc., that there are only two forms under which all means of societal production, all commons, etc. can belong to them or return to community:

    1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
    2) The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;

    Considering,

    That again this collective re-appropriation, or political and economic expropriation of the elite classes, can arise only from the direct action of the primary producers or precariat, organized in a distinct mass party-movement;

    Such permanent organization must be pursued by all the means the precariat has at its disposal.

    Reply

    •   SocProf Says:

      “Such permanent organization must be pursued by all the means the precariat has at its disposal.”

      Yes, and it must be global.

      Reply

      •   Jacob Richter Says:

        No doubt about it. “Matching the transnational mobility of labour with the establishment of a transnationally entrenched bill of workers’ political and economic rights, and with the realization of a globalized and upward equal standard of living for equal work based on real purchasing power parity, thus allowing real freedom of movement through instant legalization and open borders, and thereby precluding the extreme exploitation of immigrants” is a global task that transcends both petit-bourgeois “freedom of movement” advocacy and populist calls for immigration controls.

        Reply

  2.   Riccardo Mario Corato Says:

    Great job. Congratulations.

    I’ll try to spread it around here in Italy.

    Keep struggling for telling the truth, don’t give up.

    Best personal regards,
    Riccardo Mario Corato

    Reply

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  1. Zygmunt Bauman on The Precariat | The Global Sociology Blog

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