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: "In a literal sense, the precariousness of labor has existed since the dawn of steam-powered, industrial capitalism. Karl Marx addresses the issue in the first volume of Das Kapital,38 when he discusses the reserve army of labor. He described how the wage demands of the factory-bound proletariat were kept in check by the precariousness of labor demand, due to the irregular, crisis-prone process of capital accumulation (i.e. investment). If laborers didn’t organize, unchecked exploitation and misery would befall those working in the mills and fields. However, below the proletariat in the socio-economic hierarchy was the lumpenproletariat, whom Marx wrongly despised (and Bakunin eulogized): thieves and other petty criminals, prostitutes, tramps, vagrants, etc. The lumpenproletariat made up a reserve army of potential replacement laborers, keeping those in the factories in line, and keeping wages low.

A temporary workforce is a permanent feature of certain industries, exemplified by seasonal workers in sweatshops, and laborers in commercial agriculture. In this respect, things have not changed much since the 19th century. Informal labor remains the norm in emergent and developing economies. However, the recent swelling of the precariat is a symptom of a troubling return to informal labor markets inside the relatively wealthy societies of advanced capitalism.

While contingent labor has always existed in capitalist societies, Italian Autonomous Marxism was the first to argue that precarious labor had moved from the peripheral position it occupied under keynesian, industrial capitalism, to a core position in neoliberal, informational capitalism. Negri and others argue that informational capitalism − the current technological and social paradigm, according to Manuel Castells’ seminal work of social theory The Information Age

is based on casual, affective, creative, immaterial, and precarious labor.

However, a theory of the precariat is not immediately able to slot into the world as understood by Autonomous Marxism. The precariat comprises of two categories of workers with very differ- ent levels of skill and education: pink-collars working in retail and low-end services (cashiers, cleaners, janitors, cooks, waiters, etc.) under constrictive but standardized employment norms, and the digital creative class (editors, graphic artists, programmers, etc.) who are temping, sometimes at high wage rates, in the information economy connecting the world’s major cities. Furthermore, the precariat is also a plurality of young people of different genders, different classes, and different ethnicities.

Aside from Autonomous Marxism, contemporary Marxist thought tends to discount the notion that this precarious plurality constitutes an analogue of the 20th century working class; there might be precarity, but there’s no precariat. At most, they make up a section of the working class. I deny this. The precariat is the successor of the working class, emerging from the new form of informational neoliberalism expanded and radicalized in the crucible of the Great Recession. The precariat is a generation becoming a class. It has become a new historical subject, and is the only subject capable of progressive collective agency; it’s the precariat that both performs general labor, and constitutes the general intellect (to use Marx’s terms). The precarious have their identity based on exclusion from social status, rather than on nationalist, or cultural norms. The centrality of the service precariat for 21st century capitalist accumulation is equivalent to the role played by the industrial proletariat in determining the fortunes of 20th century capitalism.

Autonomous Marxism, as elaborated by Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno and others, places the revolutionary agency of the exploited subject at the center of philosophical analysis. After the defeat of the 1968-1979 insurgency of the western working class,40 the theorists of operaismo (workerism) turned to focus on urban movements, as well as emerging forms of service and intellectual labor, as a new Post-Fordist, digital economy was consolidating out of the ashes of industrial Fordism. In the work of Negri especially, this position is made clear: the precariat must be radicalized, in order for the multitude to cast off the dominating weight of imperial structures. It is within the relative obscurity of this intellectual tradition that the radical theory of precarity was forged in the 00s, centered around Milan, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, and Liège.

To summarize my previous point differently: the new digital capitalist class is confronted by a multitude of young precarious workers. It is the precariat’s labor, communication, and distribution that is making internet billionaires rich beyond imagination. The oligopolists have long acted jointly to protect their class interests (low taxes, low wages, etc.). However, the time has come for the precarious to act as class, and work with their collective interest in mind. It is time to cut into profits and end income insecurity. Just as Henry Ford needed to be buried for Fordism to rise, not only Steve Jobs, but also his free-market ideology, needs to die for Jobsism to rise. Although in vastly different technosocial paradigms (industrialism and informationalism, respectively), the implications of the Fordist and Jobsian compromises are the same regarding regulation: let workers share the bounty of productivity, either individually in the form of wages, or socially in the form of welfare, else risk economic crisis and class warfare. If an egalitarian solution to capitalist crisis was found against National Socialism in the last century, it can also be found against national populism in this century. Capitalism can be reformed. It has been reformed before, during the Belle Époque, and again after World War Two. However, today we need a simultaneous revision of both social and ecological regulation of capitalism. Social regulation has been experimented before with success, yet ecological regulation has not. If we consider Piketty’s laws of capitalist motion valid, and I think any thinking left-leaning individual should, then growth must be restarted, so that it can jump above the profit rate, and reduce capital-labor disparity. However, this ‘red’ (social) objective is posed to clash with the ‘green’ (environmental) objective, since additional growth would lead to even greater carbon emissions, pushing the planet further towards environmental chaos.41

Of course, anti-capitalists of all tendencies will just question why we don’t simply ditch capitalism instead. My answer to them is that capitalism makes innovation and mate- rial progress possible in ways that state communism has been unable to deliver at any latitude, even under well-meaning leaderships like those of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. Communism simply doesn’t work as an eco- nomic system; look at what China accomplished when it switched from Mao Zedong’s communism to Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism. Immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s GDP was still larger than China’s, at exchange rates reflecting purchas- ing power parities. By 2016, China’s GDP was more than five times larger that Russia’s (536% larger), making the country the workshop of the world, pulling hundreds of mil- lions out of poverty. It is hard to argue with these facts. Although the Communist party officially retained power in spite of the Tiananmen Square student rebellion, the lives of over one billion people were drastically improved by market reform: the rate of extreme poverty in China went from almost 90% in 1980, to less than 2% in 2013 (World Bank data). China’s might be state-controlled capitalism, but it’s capitalism nonetheless. In light of this, I do not see a viable economic alternative that can replace firms and markets. To adopt an effective, populist strategy, the instinctive anti-capitalism of the precariat must be of the transformative kind: changing both the state, and market institutions, in order to achieve social and ecological regulation of capital, abolishing the dictatorship of global finance, and expanding the domain of commons-based peer production, as an alternative to both state and market production."

Evaluation

Review by Michel Bauwens:

"This book is essential reading for all commoners that want to think through the right strategy for social change. It squarely places itself from the point of few of the new social groups (or class in formation, as Foti would have it) that have grown under the conditions of neoliberalism and its decline, or in other words under the emergence of cognitive capitalism or 'informationalism'. This key group are the various constituent parts of the precariat, all the people who can no longer work with dependable classic labor contracts and the steady income and protection deriving from it.

This book should be read through its end, i.e. chapter five, because its first four chapters on the precariat are only set in a more complex geopolitical context in that last chapter. To be honest, I was quite reactive at times during the reading of the first four chapters, because two very important structural elements were missing in his analysis. First is the commons itself, the other side of the antagonistic struggles of the precariat; and second is the ecological crisis, the very material conditions under which this struggle must occur today. Foti indeed calls for economic and monetary growth, and sounds like an unabashed neo-Keynesian but only in the last chapter stresses that this growth should be thermodynamically sound (i.e. he calls for monetary growth, but not growth in material services). Foti also almost completely ignores the role of the commons and 'commonalism' in the first four chapters, only acknowledging in a few parts of chapter 5, that it is a vital constituent part of the precarious condition. If you don't read chapter 5, you could be mistaken for seeing Foti's analysis as an exercise in re-imagining the class dynamics and compromises of the New Deal and post-WWII european welfare states, and has simply replaced working class with precariat, working class parties with social populism, and the New Deal with a social compact for green capitalism.

So, the fact that this is a remarkably thought out book about contemporary strategy for social change, should be tempered by a few paradoxes that the author has not completely resolved.

Indeed at the heart of the book lies also an enduring paradox: Foti calls for the most radical forms of conflict, and identifies with the more radical cultural minorities, acknowledging their anticapitalist and anarchist ethos, yet calls for mere reformism as a focus and outcome. This is therefore not a book about transforming our societies to post-capitalist logics, this is a book about a new reformism. This is a book against neoliberalism, not against capitalism. At times, it is plain 'capitalist realism', as Foti explicitly acknowledges he sees no dynamic value creation outside of capitalism. For Foti, it is clear, if sufficient conflict and precariat self-organisation can occur, then a new regulation of capitalism can occur. He justifies this by a detailed analysis of the different regulatory modes of capitalism (smith-ism, fordism, jobs-ism) and how they relate to the kondratieff economic cycles, drawing on the insights of Carlota Perez and others. Foti distinguishes crises of demand, where there is too much accumulation of capital, and not enough distribution. These crises he says, are essentially reformist crises, as people mobilize to restore balance in the redistribution, but not against the system per se. The crisis of the 30's and the crisis after 2008, are such crises, he in my view convincingly shows. Other crises are caused by a failing supply, due to over-regulation of capital and falling profit rates, such as the crisis of the 70s, and these crises, which are inflationary, are revolutionary. This distinction between crises of accumulation and crises of regulation, is in my opinion very insightful, and true. This recognition may of course be troubling, but if true, we have to take serious stock of it. We are simply not in revolutionary times, right now, but rather in a struggle between national populism and social populism. From this analysis, Foti then argues that the first priority is for the precariat to re-regulate for a distribution of wealth, much like the old working class achieved after WWII.

But even if we acknowledge this conjuncture, I would argue that Foti insufficiently balances his outlook between reforming capitalism and constructing post-capitalism, beween antagonistic conflict and positive construction of the new. He argues that without income, there can be no such construction. This is very likely true, so we need to rebalance redistribution, in a way that income growth can lead to immaterial growth that is compatible with the ecological limits of our planet, and use these surpluses to transform societal structures. Foti calls for social (or 'eco' populist movements and coalitions as the political means to that end, pointing to Podemos and En Comu, and perhaps Sanders and Corbyn, as such forces, supported by to be created Precariat Syndicates. He also puts forward the thesis that the enemy is national populism, an alliance between retrograde fossil fuel capitalism and the salariat, with on the other side a possible alliance of green capitalism (a real effort not a marketing ploy) with the precariat, with the former fighting for top-down coalition and the second for bottom-up regulation. This division of the working class is in my view way too stark, and perhaps even defeatist. I would very strongly argue to seek alliances and develop policies that can give hope to the salariat. The thrust of our work for the Commons Transition aims at precisely that. (elsewhere in the book, Foti does call for an alliance with progressive middle classes, but if these are not the workers with jobs, where are these then ?)

Now Foti correctly critiques in my view, people like Mason and Rifkin for failing to problematize the post-capitalist transition, they make it seem like an inexorable process if not affirming that we are already post-capitalist, as some others do, but in my view then in his turn he fails to pay proper attention to it. What if the re-regulation of capitalism doesn't work for example ? Then at some point, say in about 30 years, as Kondratieff cycles would indicate, we would still face a crisis of over-regulation, and a more revolutionary moment. For Foti, we have to take it on faith that green capitalism will be a successful new regulatory mode of capitalism. What if it turns out to be a unworkable compromise and that more drastic action is needed. But Foti has no faith in alternatives to capitalism, which means that the only alternatives would then be eco-fascism as a new feudalism with only consumption for the rich, lifeboat eco-hacking, a situation akin to that of medieval communes, or dictatorial eco-maoism, say Cuba on a global scale.

Contra this 'capitalist realism', our contention at the P2P Foundation is that post-capitalism is both necessary and possible, even if we recognize that today is a possible reformist moment in that evolution/transformation. In that context, the construction of seed forms, the recognition of other forms of value creation (which can be monetized!), of other forms of self-organization is absolutely a vital side of the coin in the dialectic of construction and conflict. Foti seems to forget that the traditional working class did not simply 'fight', but constructed cooperatives (both consumer coosp and producer coops), unions, parties, mutualities and many fraternal/sororal organizations. The very generalization of the welfare system was an extension by means of the state, of the solidarity mechanism of the working class, which had taken decades to develop. Also vitally, the identity itself of the working class was not just as a part of capitalism, but as a movement for another type of society, whether that was expressed through socialism, social-democracy, anarchism, and other variants. When that hope was lost terminally, that was also the end of the strength and identify of working class movements. There can be no offensive social strategy without a strong social imaginary, and mere reformist designs won’t do. So commonalism is not just something that we do when we come home from work, or tired from our conflictual organizing against an enemy from whom we want mere redistribution. On the contrary, it is vital part of the class formation and identity, this is why we stress our identity not just as precariat, which is a negative formulation that characterizes us as the weaker victims of the capitalist class, but as commoners, the multitude of co-constructors of viable futures that correspond to contemporary emancipatory desires. We cannot just trust green capitalism, we vitally need to build thermodynamically sound and mutualized provisioning systems as commons even if we have to compromise with capitalism. Post-capitalism should not be essentialized as something occuring 'after the revolution', but as an ongoing process, dynamically inter-linked with political self-organizing and conflict. Foti in this book, is only really good at conflict. Even if we look at conflict, I would argue that the strength of the reformist compromise after WWII was very much linked to the fear of the however flawed alternative that existed, and that the forms of compromise were the result of decades of invention of new forms.

If we take that view, then I believe the contradiction in Foti's book can be resolved. Indeed in that case we do not have to ask the radical precariat to give up it's values for a reformist compromise, but to productively combine radically transformative post-capitalist practice.

There is another issue with Foti's book. He very much stresses the superdiversity of the precariat, and the key role of gender and race/migration unity in their struggles. He also mentions en passant the need for a potential eurasian alignment between Europe and China , now that the Atlantic unity has been broken by Trump. But , at the same time, this is really a very eurocentric book, calling for a new compromise in Europe and 'advanced western states'. Obviously, since in the Global South it is the salariat and proletariat which is growing, there is a theoretical difficulty here. But what if a thermo-dynamically sound economy would require a cosmo-localization of our global economy, as we contend at the P2P Foundation, combining global sharing of knowledge with substantial relocalization of physical production (as even big bank reports now recognize) ? Only if we recognize this, can we actually have a new global view of solidarity, as both elements benefit workers, salaried and precarious, in the whole world.

So, in conclusion, I find Foti's book to be an excellent first half of a book, which would have been much better and sound, if it had more extensively struggled with the commons equation of the precariat. The commons is not something we do 'afterwards' , after a successful New Green Deal, it is is something that is as ongoing and vital. Theoretically, in a few paragraphs at the end of the book, Foti seems to recognize it, but it is not integrated in his strategic vision, or only marginally.

Readers who miss this aspect, could look at the ten years of research and analysis we have conducted on that other half of the equation, at the P2P Foundation. We may have the other weakness though, and in fact we purposely have focused not on the conflict part, which is the natural inclination of the left and needs no help, but in pointing out how any self-organization, and construction of the commons, which inevitable comes with conflict, is just an essential part of the programmatic alternatives of the precariat. Not just as proposals of electoral parties and syndicates, but as expressions of actual practice. Our orientation is to try to achieve a greater understanding by emancipatory forces, of both the salariat, the precariat, and progressive entrepreneurial groups, of the importance of integrating the commons as a programmatic element in their struggles, and their proposals. We will probably stick to this bias towards the constructive side of the equation, tempered by a full awareness that this is by itself insuffient, and requires the kind of understanding of struggle, and its attendant strategies, as provided by Foti.

In conclusion, Foti's enduring quality is to have worked out systematically, what the conflict part of the equation entails, and that is a very important achievement. Bearing in mind what we think is missing in this book, there is much to be learned, and I believe the different perspectives and different weaknesses in the approaches of people like Foti and the P2P Foundation (and other) commons-centric approaches, there is room for a lot of convergence and mutual enrichment."

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?)