General Theory of the Precariat

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* Alex Foti, General Theory of the Precariat—Great Recession, Revolution, Reaction, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2017.

URL = : http://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/general-theory-of-the-precariat/ (free download)

Description

"From the fast-food industry to the sharing economy, precarious work has become the norm in contemporary capitalism, like the anti-globalization movement predicted it would. This book describes how the precariat came into being under neoliberalism and how it has radicalized in response to crisis and austerity. It investigates the political economy of precarity and the historical sociology of the precariat, and discusses movements of precarious youth against oligopoly and oligarchy in Europe, America, and East Asia. Foti cover the three fundamental dates of recent history: the financial crisis of 2008, the political revolutions of 2011, and the national-populist backlash of 2016, to presents his class theory of the precariat and the ideologies of left-populist movements. Building a theory of capitalist crisis to understand the aftermath of the Great Recession, he outlines political scenarios where the precariat can successfully fight for emancipation, and reverse inequality and environmental destruction. Written by the activist who put precarity on the map of radical thinking, this is the first work proposing a complete theory of the precariat in its actuality and potentiality." (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/just-out-alex-fotis-general-theory-precariat-geert-lovink/)


About the author

Alex Foti is an editor, essayist and activist based in Milano. He was among the founders of ChainWorkers and EuroMayDay, early instances of the self-organization of precarious workers in Europe. Trained in economics, sociology, and history at Bocconi, the New School and Columbia, he has written several articles and books, including Anarchy in the EU: Grande Recessione e movi.menti pink, black, green in Europa (2009).


Excerpts

  • Recommended 'programmatic' excerpt, page 39-41, Precarious Labor and Autonomous Marxism

Evaluation

Michel Bauwens:

(a very provisional evaluation after reading the first 40 pages, roughly ch. 1 and 2)

I'm currently reading the book, and there are some surprising aspects to it:

  • the author sees the precariat as a 'class in formation'
  • the author advocates a reformist outcome within capitalism, i.e. a new regulation of capitalism but calls for growth to allow for redistribution, recognizing that this may class with green objectives
  • he calls for an alliance of the precariat and the underclass against the traditional working class seen as allied to national-populism (he calls for social populism as an alternative)
  • there is relative little connection to be seen in this book between the precariat and commoning/commons, though Foti calls for expanding commons-based peer production within a capitalist

reformation process and with CBPP seen as distinct from market and state production

Discussion

Reading notes by Giorgos Anadiotis :

"I found the book to be a step in the right direction, as it focuses on the class with the most potential of driving social change, and does so under the lens of class-conscious analysis, which is sorely needed. I have however also found some things i am skeptical about, and some others that i find clearly flawed.

To start with the positives, Foti's background in economics and involvement in grass-roots politics shows. To his credit, unlike many of his counterparts his style makes the book both accessible and interesting. His analysis of modern capitalism and the strata of the precariat is to the point, as well as the critique on the traditional left and its unions.

However, some of the book's premises, as well as the ending and conclusions were somewhat lacking to say the least.

I am extremely wary of approaches that border on identity politics. Foti himself has some words of warning against that, but he seems imo to cross that border too. He does for example mention queer and feminist movements as possible actors of change. While i am all for emancipation and sympathetic to such causes, i am yet to find elements of radicality in such movements. Liberal capitalism gladly embraces those.

Perhaps he knows something i don't, but citing for example a Women's Strike in March 2017 as a sign of mobilization and radicalization does not make sense. This was largely unnoticed and unaffective (never heard of it before), reported only by Vogue. I understand his point was mostly the trans-national nature of the organization, and we all need to see hope where we can, but this seems way far fetched.

His overall reformist and EU-centric views are also something i am not really comfortable with. While i do see their pragmatism and the need for broad alliances, i think these can only be used as stepping stones towards more radical approaches. History shows that ambivalence, half-baked attempts and the logic of "lesser evil" do not really serve well in the long run if left to their own devices.

Foti for example speaks of free trade as alternative to war, which is true to some extent. But he does in this context also speak of the invalidation of treaties such as NAFTA TTIP and the like by Trump as a setback, without a word of critique on the treaties themselves. If you know anything about the treaties or the way they are negotiated and enforced, this is deeply problematic.

As for the EU, i find his thesis of defending and preserving it problematic too, both from an ideological and a pragmatic POV. While the EU is certainly the most progressive-looking among state apparatuses today, you don't have to dig too deep to find its true nature. That has justifiably got it a bad name, which the nationalist populists are riding on, and a movement that would associate itself with the EU has no chance of appealing to the disenfranchised.

While i am all for internationalism, a union of europeans would have to be reinvented and rebranded to stand any chance of success. Hoping to simply capture the deeply flawed and malfunctioning cross-state apparatus that is the EU and fix it from within, while not breaking with its practices and trademarks is a doomed strategy imho. Just look how that worked for Syriza - been trying to make that point forever, sorry to see it proven.

But the most serious flaw i see is the assesment of the precariat's position and leverage as referred to in the final part of the book. The claim there is that the precariat owns the means of production (smartphones, laptops etc), therefore if it becomes a class per se and claims its role in the productive process it can interfere with it and influence things.

"In a networked information economy, it is the precarious, not the capitalists, that control the strategic means of production – the computing power of connected smartphones and PCs – and enable the production and distribution of information, culture, and knowledge, through networks which are making the age of mass media obsolete".

Wishful thinking at best, but flawed and dangerous. This is hard to explain for someone who has otherwise been so diligent in his economic analysis and classification of different sub-layers of the precariat in previous parts of the book. It's certainly not true for the service precariat or platform users. It's not even worth analyzing how (most) Amazon or Wal-Mart workers have nothing to do with this.

Uber or Foodora drivers may be owners of their vehicles for example, but what really makes the wheels turn are the platforms (algorithms and data) and they have no access to those. That is not to say they are powerless and they should not unionize etc, but it's an important distinction.

Similarly, social media users do not directly produce value for the platforms, they mainly act as a target audience for advertisers. Fleeing en masse would put pressure on the platforms, data sovereignity and control issues can and should be raised, but it makes no sense to classify this as a traditional employer - employee relationship and this heterogenous crowd has very little potential for common awareness and action.

The only part of the precariat for which this somewhat applies is the cognitive precariat. Software and data engineers, content creators, artists etc are indeed the owners of the means of production since in that case production is mostly cognitive and digital.

Even they however they have no ownership of the networks required to distribute and run their products en masse (cloud and web platforms) and they must either pay (both money and skills-time) to use them, or rely on one-off contracts without redistribution, hence non scalable." (https://www.facebook.com/ganadiotis/posts/10159815548640322?)