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= derived from precarious + proletariat – ie workers without security.

See also our treatment of: Precarious Labour

As a concept


Alex Foti on the Precariat

"It's not yet an identity but it's in the process of becoming at least a social subject aware of its potential, if an organization finally emerges addressing precarity from a generational angle (the European precariat is mostly a conflation of generation and class). Let's talk about part-time workers. Usually these workers have no control on their work time (they're supposed to do say 20 hours per week, but have to work 40 with no notice if managers require them to do so), and are paid per hour less than correspondent full-time workers. So clearly there are structural elements of precarity in part-time work. Also, since you work part-time you earn a partial income, and so the likelihood of moonlighting increases sharply. But there's no doubt that while involuntary part-time is the norm, there's a number of people that find flexible work schedules a plus for their individual freedom. In fact, we don't want to abolish flexibility even if we could. We want to impose social regulation on it through labor conflict, social agitation, media hacktivism. Most especially (and this is where we disagree with commie parties and unions) we want to fight for a new European welfare system (call it "commonfare") that provides the young, women, immigrants with basic income and universal access to health care, paid maternity leave and paid vacations, cheap housing and education, free, ubiquitous broadband and peer-managed culture. If such a new welfare system were to be built, then people could actually choose the level of flexibility they're comfortable with." (

Towards a demoradical strategy for organizing the precariat

Alex Foti at

"In three words, it should be green, wobbly, pink, in order to be effective. It should lay out a cogent ecological program to reform society, a creative wobbly strategy to organize and unionize the weak and the excluded, a pink emphasis on non-violent action and gender equality, so to project a queer outlook on the world. It would have to speak to the young, women, immigrants. It would have to address the grievances of the service class, and put to good use the networking talents of the creative class. It would be transnationalist in orientation and multiethnic in composition, for a truly mongrel and mulatto Europe. It would be defiant with (but tolerant of) all forms of organized religion. It would be an obvious antagonist of the securitarian state favored by bushist tendencies. And it would challenge and confront without timidity, but also with cold-mindedness, either fascist, nationalist, xenophobic forces that are resurfacing in many corners of Europe.

The mayday network has to found a wobbly-like european organization federating all the exploited, recruiting from all gender/ethnic groups and organizing all net/temp/flex workers in one big SYNDICATE OF PRECARIOUS EUROPE. It would be a card-carrying organization with its own funds and subsidized agitators, but a very flat structure, with regional nodes and cross-national hubs. It would have an explicitly formalized internal democracy, which would appoint (and remove) people in executive functions. Yes, members would have to vote on important issues and strategic decisions, with regular online and face2face consultations. I believe global movements won't progress until they adopt the democratic criteria of public discussion and majority voting. If you say liberal democracy is a fraud, you have to show a radical democracy can actually function. The first transeuropean syndicate would be open to all jobs ranging from cleaners and programmers, to documented and undocumented people, to the flexibly employed and the permanently unemployed, to anybody believing that the best form of social solidarity is supporting labor conflict and opposing the interests of employers and the investing class. It would be unashamedly syndicalist and anticapitalist in its orientation, by supporting and organizing pickets, blockades, and wildcat strikes. The recent huge social rebellions in France and Denmark against precarity and workfare should remind the mayday network that the time to establish a networked organization is now.

On the party front, the issue of producing a recognizable radical political identity embodying a sense of historical urgency is a lot more complex and still immature at the moment. But it cannot wait any longer being discussed. As far as I am concerned, I see the need for reaping a distinctive political fruit out of the Seattle-Genova tree. My reasoning is this. If the radical left of 1968 and hippyism gave rise to modern political environmentalism, then the ebullience should similarly produce a brand-new political label in the longer term. Greens were born out the turmoil of the 60s and 70s. And what new political constellation will soon appear on the sky, following the travails of the early XXI century? The PINK CONSPIRACY. In a larger context, women's emancipation and the end of the patriarchal family with its unequal gender roles, feminist movements, gay mobilizations, queer politics, full civil rights for GLBTs, the assertion of reproductive rights against papist reaction, and equality of access to political representation for women represent an epochal earthquake for western politics. In a movement context, the pink carnival of rebellion was the major innovative form of political expression emerging from the Prague-Goteborg-Genoa cauldron, next to, but separate from, the white overalls and black blocs, the two other distinctive youth expressions of the anti-globalization movement. Pink collars are the present of social work and pink movements are the future of social progress. Let's do a pink alliance of heretic dissenters in Europe! Who knows? It could be the answer to the generalized disaffection with existing political parties and the institutional representation they're supposed to carry out. In Copenhagen's municipal elections, a pink list got a percentage of votes in the two digits. As early political test, it sure is promising. Barroso and Trichet are in bad need of a pink slip: they must be fired and their policies overhauled in the face of widespread social opposition and unrest." (


"The number of workers in the UK in precarious positions where they could lose their jobs at short or no notice has grown by almost 2 million in the past decade, as businesses insist on using more self-employed workers and increasingly recruit staff on temporary and zero-hours contracts, analysis for the Guardian has revealed.

In the first of a series on the UK’s increasingly precarious world of work, a Guardian investigation uncovers the use of ‘contrived’ financial arrangements to slash national insurance bills

More than one in five workers, some 7.1 million people, now face precarious employment conditions that mean they could lose their work suddenly – up from 5.3 million in 2006, according to analysis of official figures conducted by John Philpott, a leading labour market economist. Half of the biggest group – the self-employed – are in low pay and take home less than two-thirds of the median earnings, according to the Resolution Foundation thinktank. Two million self-employed people now earn below £8 per hour." (

More Information

See the article on Precarity

Interview with Alex Foti at

His seminal essay on Demoradicalism is here at


* Book: Guy Standing, The Precariat. The new dangerous class (Bloomsbury Academic 2011), viii, 198p

(look at individual chapters here:


Ben Trott:

Precarisation and informalisation

"The precariat, then, result from a process of ‘precarisation’ (Standing 2011, 16). ‘To be precaritised’, Standing (2011, 16) suggests, ‘is to be subject to the pressures and experiences... of living in the present, without a secure identity or sense of development achieved through work and lifestyle’. Judith Butler (2011, 13) has distinguished between a similar process of precarisation, ‘built into the institutions of temporary labor, of decimated social services, and of the general attrition of social democracy’, and precarity ‘as a structure of affect’ which represents ‘a heightened sense of expendability or disposability that is differentially distributed throughout society’, as well as the precariousness ‘which characterizes every embodied and finite human being, and nonhuman beings as well.’3 I broadly follow these distinctions throughout this paper. The discussion of precarious work (or rather, of work’s ‘precarisation’) in Standing’s (2011) book includes, yet extends well beyond, the casualisation of the labour market that has accompanied the erosion of the welfare state in recent decades (where this ever existed) – both of which have been carefully documented by scholars like Anne Gray (2004), and indeed, throughout much of his career, by Standing (e.g. 1997, 2008, 2011, 10–11 and 31–49) himself. It goes on to demonstrate that these processes have now been extended and intensified so that ‘informalised’ forms of work – like those that Mike Davis, in his book Planet of the Slums (2006, 178), shows have become, from the 1980s onwards, ‘the new primary mode of livelihood in a majority of Third World cities’ – can be found almost everywhere.4 Certainly they can be identified in what Saskia Sassen (2001, 294–305) calls the ‘global cities’; metropolises like London, New York and Tokyo that perform key, strategic functions within the global economy. Immanuel Ness (2005, 22), who echoes aspects of Davis’ argument, insists that ‘[a]lthough informalization is typically associated with underground economies in the developing world, there is a growing recognition of the link between the regulated and the unregulated sectors in advanced industrial regions’ like New York City, the focus of his work. Furthermore, this ‘is not limited to immigrant workers but also has grown to include a larger share of native-born workers employed in domestic services, personal services, and garment production’ (Ness 2005, 23). Such labour, in other words, can no longer be described in any sense as ‘peripheral’, but rather as central to production today.

Denizens and the new hierarchies of citizenship

The spread of informalisation is one factor that has contributed to the proliferation of so-called ‘denizenship’, where some are granted a more restricted range of rights than full citizens (Standing 2011, 14). Standing (2011, 11–12) partly explains this phenomenon through the demise of ‘industrial citizenship’, which he describes as the ‘forms of labour related security... that social democrats, labour parties and trade unions pursued... after the Second World War’. This included the rights to earn an income, maintain employment and skills within a given niche, develop new skills, earn a sufficient income, work in a safe and healthy environment, and the right to trade union representation and to strike – all of which are being eroded (Standing 2011, 10). This is particularly acute, and the status of ‘denizen’ often at its clearest, not only for those working within the aforementioned informalised sectors, but also among migrants (domestic as well as international), and those subjected to ‘criminalisation’ (Standing 2011, 14).5 Here, Standing’s (2011, 14) argument resonates in many ways with a huge body of scholarship on the reconfiguration of hierarchies of citizenship in the globalisation era: from Étienne Balibar’s (2004, 44) discussion of the ways the 1992 Maastricht Treaty meant first, second and even third generation migrants were excluded from European citizenship, becoming ‘a mass of second-class citizens... even when they enjoy long-term or permanent rights of residency’; through to Pun Ngai’s (2005, 41) discussion of the various categories into which legal temporary workers are placed in Shenzen – a city in the Chinese province of Guangdong where many domestic migrants work in high-tech factories located within its Special Economic Zone – determining their entitlement to state welfare and residency rights.

Alongside hierarchies – including but not limited to those of citizenship/denizenship – established, exacerbated, or reconfigured through the erosion of ‘industrial citizenship’ (which, to be sure, was certainly never universal), gender also continues to serve as a basis upon which precarity is differentially distributed. In 2008, all OECD member countries were still characterised by a gender pay-gap, in terms of the median earnings of full-time workers, and in the majority of these countries, women’s percentage share of part-time work rose throughout the first decade of the Twenty-First Century (OECD 2010a, 2010b). Women make up an estimated 90% of the 27 million workers in the world’s ‘free trade zones’, that are often highly precaritised (Davis 2006, 158), and Standing (1999, 599) found that, certainly in the European Union, women tend to have less access to welfare benefits than men when unemployed.

Graduates in debt, and with no future

There have been many consequences to the changes in the labour-market that have taken place over the last few decades, one of which, Standing points out, is that even though the proportion of the population who access further education is greater than in previous generations, the expectations of graduates (in terms of the quality and security of jobs) are failing to be met. ‘40 per cent of Spanish university students’, he explains, ‘a year after graduating find themselves in low-skilled jobs that do not require their qualifications’, producing what he calls ‘a pandemic of status frustration’ (Standing 2011, 67). Paul Mason (2012, 70), in his study of the causes and actors behind the recent wave of protests, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, describes this as a generation of ‘graduates with no future’, facing stiff competition for few jobs, little disposable income, and high interest rates on mortgages (Mason 2012, 71). ‘Insult is added to injury’, however, when these future-less graduates are ‘told they should be committed, happy and loyal in jobs that are beneath their qualifications and must repay debts incurred on a promise that their certificates would gain them high income jobs’ (Standing 2011, 68).

Maurizio Lazzarato (2012, 7) takes up this issue in his recent book, The Making of Indebted Man, showing, ‘[t]he debtor-creditor relationship... intensifies mechanisms of exploitation and domination at every level of society’, and not only among students, effectively producing disciplined subjects compelled to labour. ‘The debtor is “free,”’ he explains, ‘but his actions, his behavior, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into... You are free insofar as you assume the way of life... compatible with reimbursement’ (Lazzarato 2012, 31).

Such is the pressure to find rewarding work, work that helps escape student or consumer debt, or simply work to meet basic needs, that a growing number particularly of young people find themselves in unpaid internships. In Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Ross Perlin (2011, 36 and 185–187) describes how these are no longer confined to relatively high-end sectors in the US, EU and Commonwealth countries, but are also increasingly found in retail and elsewhere, as well as in metropolises across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. This partly corresponds (and certainly coincides) with a rise in the demand for ‘free labour’ – even from those in formal, paid employment who are often expected to work long, irregular hours, and increasingly away from traditional places of work. Such labour is ‘free’, Standing (2011, 130) insists, ‘in that it is unpaid; it is unfree in that it is not done autonomously’. One of the areas this (un)freedom of contemporary labour is at its clearest is in the digital and online work of ‘netslaves’, to borrow a term from Tiziana Terranova (2004, 73). But their particular work-world reveals much about the world of work in general: they are ‘not simply a typical form of labour on the Internet; they also embody a complex relation to labour, which is widespread in late capitalist societies’ (Terranova 2004, 73). ‘Free labour on the Net,’ she points out, is ‘[s]imultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited’ (Terranova 2004, 74).6 Offline, ‘free labour’ – if we follow the distinction Standing (2011, 13) borrows from ancient Greece – could perhaps be understood not as ‘labour’ at all but rather as ‘work’, and more specifically, as the growing compulsion to-work-in-order-to-labour. The Greek definition, Standing (2011, 13) insists, casts work as unpaid, traditionally carried out by citizens as an end in itself, whereas labour is exploited, conducted for the benefit of others, and performed by non-citizens – the banausoi, metics and slaves. Today, we might still want to conceive of labour, as in ancient Greece, as the primary productive activity – productive today, that is, for capital; if we follow Adam Smith and Marx’s remarkably similar definitions – even if this is often now performed by (full) citizens (Standing’s discussion of precarious denizens notwithstanding). Work, however, is certainly no longer performed simply ‘for its own sake, to strengthen personal relationships, to be combined with public participation in the life of the community’, as Standing (2011, 13) argues was the case in ancient Greece. Instead, such relationship-strengthening, as well as being seen to participate in and contribute to ‘the community’, to society and to culture, have become a common means of accessing labour – of ‘pimping’ your CV, for instance – which in turn clearly remains the main way of meeting basic (and all other) needs (Standing 2011, 13).

This, then, broadly describes the organisation of work, of labour, and of social life – as well as their blurring – today. Labour is casualised and increasingly informal, with state welfare provisions greatly curtailed. Citizenship is undergoing new stratifications and ‘denizenship’ proliferating. Through indebtedness, there is a growing compulsion towards finding any kind of waged-labour; as well as towards working-in-order-to labour, and indeed labouring for free. The precariat as ‘a class in the making’ emerges as a consequence of a precarisation that is accelerating, even as its effects continue to be differentially distributed – on the basis of gender and geography, status and sector. It is a body of productive and exploited subjects, far more heterogeneous in its make-up than its predecessor, ‘the proletariat’." (


1. Review by Elaine Graham-Leigh:

(the review also refers to: Owen Jones, Chavs. The demonization of the working class Verso 2011)

"Standing, similarly, sees the position of the working class now as one of defeat, so much so that the structure of the class itself has been changed. The core of his argument is that insecure workers cannot be regarded as part of the proletariat, which he defines in relation to secure employment and trade-union rights, but represent a new class, the precariat, with particular dangers because they are difficult for traditional working-class organisation to reach and vulnerable to co-option by far right groups. Jones also notes this potential for channelling working-class discontent for parties like the BNP.

Reading these two books together provides a striking example of how writers can observe essentially the same phenomena and come to opposite conclusions about them. For Jones, the solution lies in a new working-class politics, including a response by trade unions to the new working conditions, since the decline of trade unions ‘lies at the heart of many of the problems of the working class’ (p.266), but which would go beyond workplace-based struggles to initiate, for example, a campaign for good jobs, incorporating many of the elements of theGreen New Deal. For Standing, this sort of argument is part of the problem, as he reveals in a telling passage in the preface:

‘In the early stages of writing the book, a presentation of the themes was made to what turned out to be a largely ageing group of academics of a social democratic persuasion. Most greeted the ideas with scorn and said there was nothing new. For them, the answer today was the same as it was when they were young. More jobs were needed, more decent jobs. All I will say to those respected figures is that I think the precariat would have been unimpressed’ (p.vii).

The notion that insecure employment and precarious living conditions could be relieved by secure employment is here revealed to be, most damningly, old-fashioned. The concept of the precariat has its origins in Italian autonomist thinking in the 1990s, and is very much in opposition to what is seen as the traditional left’s doomed attempts to turn the clock back to mid-twentieth century, Fordist employment patterns. Rather, the solution here to the consequences of insecure employment is to replace employment as the source of security. Standing, in common with other proponents of the existence of a precariat class, calls for a basic guaranteed income, paid to everyone regardless of behaviour, supplying stability to the class who currently have none.

A common criticism of the basic income as an idea is that it would be ameliorating the effects of capitalism, rather than attacking the problem at the source. In the same way that working tax credits are a state subsidy for companies’ decisions to increase their profits by paying low wages, so in paying a basic income, the state would be picking up the tab for globalised labour policies, and freeing up companies to continue the requirement that their workers assume more and more of the costs of reproducing their labour themselves. Standing would clearly not agree with a suggestion that he is capitulating to capitalism; indeed, in his view, restoring security to the precariat is on a level with seizing control of the means of production.

For Standing, the key struggle in every era is over the ‘key assets’, which do not have to be the means of production themselves. They were in industrial capitalism, when the struggle was over control of ‘factories, estates and mines’. Now, however, in ‘today’s tertiary society’, the progressive struggle will be over ‘economic security, time, quality space, knowledge and financial capital’ (p.171). By supplying economic security, time and the opportunity to gain the other elements, the basic income in Standing’s view would be a major step forward in the class struggle: for him it is a revolutionary idea.

There are, nevertheless, considerable problems with it. While it might be a tempting idea that all we need to do is get a greater share of security for us as individuals, it is difficult to see how a revolution could succeed without seizing control of the means of production, however antediluvian a concept that might appear. Standing could be read here to be arguing that the decline of industrial production in the West has ushered in a post-capitalist age of immaterial production, to which none of the previous rules apply. This is certainly the implication of his used of the term ‘tertiary’, presumably to differentiate us from the ‘primary’, agricultural, and ‘secondary’, industrial ages. It seems a little odd, to say the least, that at the time at which confident proclamations from the ruling class of the new frictionless, weightless economy, immune from the previous problems of capitalism, have been shown to be so much hot air, that Standing appears to be embracing them. Is this really what he means? It is not entirely clear, which highlights a major difficulty of this work: that it discusses, and takes issue with, some of the central concepts of Marxism, without admitting that that is what it is doing, or addressing them explicitly.

The idea that the proletariat has been superseded by the precariat is similarly problematic. Standing appears to view the proletariat as the collective embodiment of the ‘Fordist’ era of full, secure, unionised employment; a rather eccentric definition, since trade unions were hardly widespread when Marx wrote and precarious working conditions have been the reality for most of the proletariat for most of its history. In Marxist terms, there is no reason why we should have to define insecurely employed, or indeed unemployed workers as no longer proletarian: the flat-capped factory-working proletarian is a stereotype, not a definition. That more and more working-class people have to endure precarious working and living conditions is clearly a reality, but Standing does not present a convincing argument for why this means we should regard them as no longer proletarian. The existence of the precariat as a separate class is more assumed than established here, and it is not a safe assumption.

This is more than an argument about terminology, because of the historic nature of the proletariat as the revolutionary class. It is not clear whether Standing thinks that the precariat is now the revolutionary class, or whether for him a concomitant of his view that large numbers of people have fallen out of the proletariat is indeed that the ability to build the revolution has fallen with them. The precariat certainly appears in this book as the class at the centre of struggle, but given the strong identification here of working-class organisation with the outmoded proletariat, it is certainly a possible reading that revolutionary organisation is similarly supposed to be so-last-century. It is indisputable that the reality of insecure employment patterns, in the private sector often in non-union workplaces, presents a challenge for a trade-union model of organisation based exclusively on workplace struggle, but the conclusion that these factors represent the formation of a new class seems neither convincing nor helpful in building the resistance to the effects of the economic crisis." (

2. New Unionism

"Here’s a very brief summary of Standing’s argument:

The push for “labour market flexibility” began in earnest in the 1970s. It was a move designed to transfer an increasing share of business risk onto the backs of employees. Since then we have seen the rise and rise of the temp worker, the agency worker, the part-timer, the short-term contractor, the casual employee, the freelancer, the working retiree, the ‘trial period’ employee, the intern…

They have joined the ranks of migrant workers, domestic workers, volunteers and unpaid care workers. Together, these workers are “denizens” (or semi-citizens) in production and services. Their rights are limited by legislation, and their situation is manipulated to weaken and divide the labour movement. Taken together, this group of groups is growing as quickly as the influence of neo-liberals will allow.

This is no conspiracy theory. In his many years working for the ILO and subsequent research at the University of Bath(2), Standing has encountered enough evidence (government statistics, academic studies, first hand observations) to convince anybody who approaches the subject honestly. Perhaps more importantly, he presents these facts to the reader without any sense of righteousness or relish. Standing is not some ideologue trying to assert his beliefs. Rather, his views appear to have developed naturally out of the evidence. At least, that is how it seems. His arguments are all the more convincing because of this.

As we have seen elsewhere(4), precarious work has become “the new normal” since the financial crisis of 2008. It is a process of churn that looks set to continue for many years to come. Meanwhile, those with “permanent jobs” are finding their employment conditions eroded at every opportunity. People who change jobs are also being presented with ever-harsher terms of employment. Not only is “the traditional” job being superseded, it is being hollowed out from within.

There has been no comprehensive study measuring the levels of precarity in the global workforce, but it looks as if we are talking about 25% of the population, in rich countries at least. (My estimate, not Standing’s. See Whatever unions do or don’t do as a result, they should NOT regard this as some kind of seasonal anomaly. This is not some awkward stage that capitalism is going through. Most of the world’s population already lives and works without employment security. Most people in rich countries did as well, prior to the 20th century. As Standing shows, it is the secure employment model (known as “labourism”) that should be regarded as the anomaly.

By extension, it would be a strategic blunder for unions to continue building the foundations of unionism on the labourist model. They MUST start finding new ways of organizing to bring the precariat into their ranks.

This will not be easy, because the precariat does not yet see itself as a class. Nor did the early proletariat. In the industrial revolution, many different strands had to come together before the “class-in-the-making” became a “class-for-itself”. The equivalent revolution, this time round, is globalisation. (“The shift to temporary labour is part of global capitalism”. p33). Some are entering the precariat unconsciously, having never known anything else. Others have been forced to join through straitened circumstances. Still others have arrived without moving, simply because because their job or industry has changed around them.

Security, peace of mind and working conditions have not been the only casualties of this shift. Along the way, those who have joined the precariat have also lost their sense of social solidarity. One of the earliest casualties has been union membership. To many, unionisation is not even a choice that merits consideration. As Richard Trumka noted in 2010, the younger ones see unions as “a remnant of their parents’ economy” (5).

Not surprisingly, Standing thinks things will get worse. In the penultimate chapter, The Politics of Inferno, he shows us just how deeply these changes have been affecting society. In particular, marginalisation, demonisation, fear and anxiety are producing an explosive condition among a class of people who already have no particular allegiances. Since the book was published we have seen the rise of the Occupy movement. At the time of writing, neo-fascist groups like the British National Party, Japan’s Net Far Right and the U.S. Tea Party were more obvious examples.

Thankfully, Standing does not leave us there. The final chapter calls for a return to “a politics of paradise”. Like George Lakov, he argues that progressives should be arguing for a new vision, rather than simply responding to the agenda that has been imposed. “It is time to revisit the great trinity – freedom, fraternity and equality…”. This is a chapter you should read for yourself. You may agree; you may not. Put that aside. This is not a schedule of recommended demands, it is a prescription for a class-in-the-making to become a class-for-itself. The real work is up to them." (


The new class structure of neoliberal capitalism

Guy Standing:

"The globalisation era generated a class fragmentation that threatens democratic governance. At the top, in terms of income, above older representatives of capital, an elite of absurdly affluent figures emerged as global citizens, detached from any nation state but able to influence governments wherever they wished. Stretching from multi-billionaires in Silicon Valley to oligarchs in Russia, encompassing hedge-fund managers and property tycoons, the elite has dominated political discourse. No prospective prime minister or president has risked offending them. Occasionally, one of them falls foul of the law. Most ignore it with impunity. But curbing their collective political and economic power is vital for any meaningful democracy.

In terms of income, the group below the elite and other representatives of capital is the ‘salariat’, those with above average incomes, with an array of enterprise benefits and employment security. This group is shrinking, hit by the financial crisis, austerity packages and the extension of labour market flexibility, nowhere more so than in Greece.

Some of the salariat have joined the third group, ‘proficians’, those with bundles of technical and emotional skills that allow them to be self-selling entrepreneurs, living opportunistically on their wits and contacts. This group is growing but is relatively small; it tends to be socially liberal but economically conservative, since it wants low taxes and few obstacles to money making.

Below the salariat and proficians in terms of income is the old manual working class, the proletariat, which has been dissolving for decades. The democracy built in the twentieth century was designed to suit this class, as was the welfare state. Trades unions forged a labourist agenda and social democratic parties implemented it. That agenda has little legitimacy in the twenty-first century.

Below the proletariat is the rapidly growing ‘precariat’, a class-in-the-making.[3] It is internally divided, just as the proletariat was. Its division is what makes it a dangerous class and why an understanding of it is so crucial to debates about democracy.

The precariat consists of millions with insecure jobs, housing and social entitlements. They have no occupational identity, and do not belong to any occupational community with a long-established social memory giving an anchor of ethical norms. Being urged to be ‘flexible’ and ‘employable’, they act opportunistically. They are denizens, not citizens, in that they have fewer rights than citizens.

There are three ‘varieties’ of precariat, all detached from old political democracy and unable to relate to twentieth-century industrial democracy or economic democracy. The first variety consists of those drifting from working-class backgrounds into precariousness, the second consists of those emerging from a schooling system over-credentialised for the flexi-job life on offer, and the third are migrants and others, such as the criminalised, in a status denying them the full rights of citizens. Each has a distinctive view on life and society.

The precariat is cut off from classic circuits of capital accumulation, and from the logic of collective bargaining between employers as capital and workers as providers of stable labour. It is not represented in any existing class-based political party and cannot relate to fixed workplaces, the pillar of twentieth-century industrial democracy.

The precariat is not an underclass. If it were, one might dismiss it as a fringe, consisting of misfits who can be treated as suffering from social illnesses, to be ‘re-integrated’ into society. Governments have been tempted to treat it this way. That may succeed in lessening disruptive behaviour for a while but not for long.

Nevertheless, part of the precariat is drifting into a lumpen precariat, unable to survive in a milieu of precarious jobs, many drifting into gangs, or becoming ‘bag ladies’ or addicts of some kind. But the precariat itself is desired by global capitalism. It is an integral part of the production system, with distinctive relations of production and consciousness of specific insecurities. This is why it makes sense to depict it in class terms. And it is a dangerous class precisely because all varieties are disengaged from twentieth-century political discourses. They are ready to listen to other voices.

In that context, if a re-embedding phase of the global transformation is to occur, a political strategy will be needed to provide new forms of regulation and social protection that favour the precariat, along with new mechanisms for redistributing the key assets of society. In all three respects, the neo-liberal cupboard is bare." (

The Three Possible Expressions of the Precariat

Guy Standing:

"There are three directions in which factions in the precariat could turn — atavistic-populist, anarchic detachment and idealistic-progressive (or utopian-progressive). Each is gaining ground.

The atavistic-populist trend is displayed in support for neo-fascist parties and populist demagogues, in which populists have played on fears among the national precariat in order to depict government as alien and to see ‘strangers’ (migrants, Roma, Muslims, etc.) as the cause of their insecurity.

The anarchic detachment mode is displayed in anomic, anti-social behaviour, in the fires burning England’s cities, in social illnesses and loss of faith in politics in general.

The idealistic-progressive direction is displayed in EuroMayDay parades that have exploded in at least 25 European cities. So far, the mainstream media, international bodies, social scientists and political leaders have not been listening, or have given the impression they have not heard." ((