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Precarity is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. The term has been specifically applied to either intermittent work or, more generally, a confluence of intermittent work and precarious existence. [1]



"I. Precarious literally means unsure, uncertain, difficult, delicate . As political term it refers to living and working conditions without any guarantees: for example the precarious residence permission of migrants and refugees, or the precarious everyday life as a single mother. Better known was the term Since the early 80s the term has been used more and more in relation to labor. Precarious work refers to all possible shapes of unsure, not guaranteed, flexible exploitation: from illegalized, seasonal and temporary employment to homework, flex- and temp-work to subcontractors, freelancers or so called self employed persons.

II. Precarization at work means an increasing change of previously guaranteed permanent employment conditions into mainly worse paid, uncertain jobs. On a historical and global scale precarious work represents not an exception. In fact was the idea of a generalization of so called guaranteed working conditions a myth of a short period, the one of the so called welfare state. In the global South, in eastern Europe as well as for the main part of women and migrants in the north all together the big majority of global population precarious working conditions were and are the norm. Precarization describes moreover the crisis of established institutions, which have represented for that short period the framework of (false) certainties. It is an analytical term for a process, which hints to a new quality of societal labor. Labor and social life, production and reproduction cannot be separated anymore, and this leads to a more comprehensive definition of precarization: the uncertainty of all circumstances in the material and immaterial conditions of life of living labor under contemporary capitalism. For example: wage level and working conditions are connected with a distribution of tasks, which is determined by gender and ethnic roles; the residence status determines the access to the labor market or to medical care. The whole ensemble of social relationships seems to be on the move.

III. Precariat - an allusion to proletariat - meanwhile is used as an offensive self-description in order to emphasize the subjective and utopian moments of precarization. Through the mass refusal of gender roles, of factory work and of the command of labor over life, precarization has really a double face: it is possible to speak indeed of a kind of flexibilisation from below. Precarization does not represent a simple invention of the command centers of capital: it is also a reaction to the insurgency and new mobility behaviors of living labor, and in so far it can be understood as the attempt to recapture manifold struggles and refusals in order to establish new conditions of exploitation of labor and valorization of capital. Precarization thus symbolizes a contested field: a field in which the attempt to start a new cycle of exploitation also meets desires and subjective behaviors which express the refusal of the old, so called fordist regime of labor and the search for another, better, we can even say flexible life. However, we think that precariat as a new term of struggle runs in an old trap if it aims at a quick unification and creation of a dominant social actor. Precariat gets even into a farce, if the radical left tries to legitimize itself as main force in its representation because of the increasing involvement of leftist activists in precarious labor and life conditions. But the main point is that taking into account the hierarchies which shape the composition of the contemporary living labor (from illegalized migrant janitors to temporary computerfreaks), the strong diversity of social movement and respective demands and desires, nobody should simplify precarization into a new identity. We are confronted here with the problem of imagining a process of political subjectivation in which different subject positions can cooperate in the production of a new common ground of struggle without sacrificing the peculiarity of demands which arise from the very composition of living labor." (


By Dale Carrico at

"Precarity is a word that is coming to be used by more and more people to designate what they take to be key continuities in the conditions, experiences, and implications of a growing majority of the human population to the characteristic mode of exploitation in the contemporary world.

More specifically, precarity in these discourses indicates an ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today's world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live.

Whether it denotes the dismantlement of established entitlements in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies arising out of the market fundamentalist gospel of an endlessly elaborated and augmented "personal responsibility," or denotes the erection of barriers to the achievement of entitlements for people in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world" through the terms of globalization euphemized as "free trade," precarization describes a social and cultural inculcation of human insecurity as well as the consequent opportunistic mobilization of that insecurity to maintain and consolidate the complicity, obedience, or at any rate the acquiescence, of the overabundant majority of people on earth to the terms of their own exploitation and to the disproportionate benefit of incumbent elites.

"Casualization" is a term that describes the emerging preponderance of people who labor in temporary, part-time, intermittent, "flexible" forms of employment, typically with diminished entitlements, security, occasions for advancement or provision for the future, or institutional recourse in matters of grievance. Usually this tendency is described as a shift away from the expectations of especially the citizens in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies that desirable employment will be permanent or at any rate stable, full-time, skilled, characterized by relatively secure benefits, pensions, underwritten in some cases by professional traditions like tenure but more broadly by the provision of more or less extensive welfare entitlements.

"Informalization" is a term that is often used interchangeably with casualization to describe the same trends in prevailing conditions of employment, but also describes the contemporary proliferation of insecure, "unconventional" (though ever more conventional) "off the books" social transactions more broadly: bribery, black-markets, influence peddling, kickbacks, barter, payment in kind, blackmail, unpaid labor, squatting, peer-to-peer production, and so on." (


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." (

See also:

Analysis by Andy Robinson

Text provided via email, March 2011.

Precarity vs Fordism

"Precarity is usually defined in contrast to the previous period, Fordism. Precarity is, in a classic definition, 'the labor conditions that arose after the transition from life-long, stable jobs common in industrial capitalist and welfare-state economies, to temporary, insecure, low-paying jobs emerging with the globalization of the service and financial economy' (Casas-Cortes and Cobarrubias, 2007: 115). Berardi argues that it stands for the area of work without fixed rules (2009: 31). Precarity is distinguished from the earlier phase of capitalism, up to the mid-1970s in Britain and until about 2000 in parts of Europe, in which the state was heavily involved in the regulation of the economy, there was an expansive welfare state covering the more socially-included sections of the population, the economy was managed by a tripartite alliance of capitalists, statists and labour leaders, and the economy functioned mainly through full-time, regular-hours jobs-for-life which paid a family wage (enough to sustain a decent standard of living for the worker and several dependents, and hence compatible with nuclear families in which women did not work). This is sometimes referred to as 'Fordism' (as an extension of the organised reproduction of productive labour initiated by the Ford company in America), 'corporatism' (because of the integrated or 'corporate' nature of state-capital-labour relations) or 'organised capitalism' (because the state organised the reproduction of the conditions for capital accumulation, such as providing education, healthcare, roads etc). Discussions of precarity usually begin by contrasting it to this earlier period (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 180).

While this kind of arrangement has disappeared from the 1980s onwards in Britain, it remains the reference-point for how most people seem to think about work. Those of us growing up in precarity are thus viewed by our parents' generation as underperforming (because we haven't got the full-time jobs-for-life they expected we'd get), and on the other hand, if our parents were middle- or included-working-class (and therefore not marginal themselves), they often have the benefits of much greater job stability, social welfare and higher wages than we have (hence a lot of the currently younger generations end up living with our parents for longer than they did, or relying on them financially). In Italy, Fantone (2006) argues that many members of the precarious generation have been shielded from the worst excesses of marginality mainly through the help of their families, drawing on the resources which had been distributed to older generations.

Of course there are also exceptions, because Fordism was never really all-inclusive. It was based on a split between a small number of highly skilled, socially included workers and a much larger layer of atomised workers (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Things were a lot more difficult for migrants, for people from extremely poor backgrounds, and for single women than the usual image implies. Women arguably have more economic opportunities today, though this is debatable. There's also the problem that the Fordist model was only fully realised in the rich Northern countries, not in the majority-world (though it was the inspiration for the development projects of the period). But the point is that the social definition of normality in work is based on something which existed then, but no longer exists today. In addition, Fordism was itself an exception to capitalist history (Mitropoulos, 2005; Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.; Berardi, 2009: 31) and was a geographical exception, never really applying outside the rich countries (Raunig, 2007). Because the Fordist type of career was normatively defined as normal, and was/is the most visible kind of career, there's a tendency even among precarity activists to assume that it actually was/is normal, and that precarity is a historical exception. In fact, viewed over the history of capitalism, Fordism was a relatively short blip in a long history of precarity. It is probably more useful to think of Fordism, rather than precarity, as the exception.

On a deeper level, precarity is fundamental to capitalism, which is 'perpetually in crisis'. Temporary stabilisations such as Fordism occur only by displacing crisis, either onto less fortunate groups, or into the future through debt (Mitropoulos, 2005). Capitalism always renders workers precarious, because workers are made dependent on the sale of labour, and this sale is never guaranteed (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 188). Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) argue that Fordism was actually simply an alternative form of precarity, with capitalism consuming time, energy and affect (emotions) and producing other forms of anxiety. The criticism has also been raised that concentrating on the differences from Fordism does not offer the conceptual possibilities to imagine future developments (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006).

What is new is not precarity, but its expansion to an increasing range of social sectors, especially to university-educated, non-migrant men (Precarias, 2004; Weber, 2004; Vishmidt, 2005), the discovery of precarity among those who had not expected it (Mitropoulos, 2005). In fact, it reached this core group a long time ago, with the increase in temporary jobs, though it is still expanding rather than contracting (Lorey, 2010). Increasingly, graduates can no longer count on a stable job after graduation, but instead, will end up moving between different semi-self-employed positions in the creative field, 'characterised by an ever-widening gap between their erstwhile high social standing and their miserable living standards' (Weber, 2004 paraphrasing Anne and Marine Rambach).

Discourses on Precarity

Different theoretical approaches view the rise of precarity very differently. Neoliberal and Third Way (e.g. Blairite) authors view it as progress, as part of a linear narrative of history. Orthodox Marxists tend to view it simply as a return to pre-Fordist capitalism, imagining history as a kind of tug-of-war between labour and capital, and precarity as the result of a big tug back towards capital's side (which can be redressed by another big tug the other way). Autonomist Marxists tend to view it as a new phase of capitalism, qualitatively different from what went before, initiating a new round of struggles.

The university-educated, freelance subgroup of precarians are sometimes idealised in neoliberal images of self-determining, autonomous, active subjects. Flexible workers and freelancers occupy a nodal position in discourses on the 'New Economy', so in many ways, invisibility occurs in spite of the best efforts of neoliberalism (Weber, 2004). In the 'new economy' discourse, ideas of creativity, flexibility, autonomy and flattened digital networks are used in an attempt to justify increasingly precarious working conditions and outsourcing (Kapur, 2007: 163-4, 169; Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 177). But precarity is more likely to take forms closer to those of the 'ordinary invisibility' which has always sustained capitalism (Vishmidt, 2005).

In radical thought, the most common response to precarity has been to try to reimagine precarious, contingent and flexible workers as a new kind of political subject with its own ways of organising and expressing itself (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 52). Autonomist Marxist authors such as Hardt and Negri (2000), Virno (2004), Lazzarato (1996) and Berardi (2009) reconstruct the precariat, multitude, or immaterial labour as a successor to the proletariat, an exploited force which contains the potential power to shake or smash global capitalism. For instance, Berardi (2009: 52) argues that a 'cognitariat' of cellularised intellectual workers is now counterposed to a ruling managerial class. Many authors in the precarity movement, however, differentiate the lived experience of the precariat from vaguer, more sociological concepts of the multitude or immaterial labour (e.g. Raunig, 2007).

There is a difficulty that ideas of immaterial labour often reproduce the 'New Economy' discourse, with authors such as Brian Holmes (2004), Hardt and Negri (2000) and Paolo Virno (2004) viewing creative production as the hegemonic figure of the current economy which reveals its inner dynamics and the centrality of linguistic production in the contemporary economy. They view the current phase as moving towards the eventual reduction of work and thus of exploitation, and creating a new type of 'common' through the role of socialisation in work and the homogenisation of the work process around communication. In this literature, 'the revolutionary recomposition of subjects takes place... in establishing what we all have in common' (Negri, cited in Raunig, 2007). Such accounts are criticised for privileging certain variants of precarious labour as the most advanced or politically significant (Dowling et al., 2007: 2; Federici, 2006), and for drawing on the idealism of the 'New Economy' literature (Dyer-Witheford, 2005). Federici (2006) argues that capitalism does not move towards higher forms of production and labour, but rather, is built on dispossession of subordinate levels for purposes of accumulation. In addition, the view of the imposition of communicability as progressive is dangerous, given that other authors such as Virilio view it in terms of the reduction of life to capital, the homogenisation and simplification of human life.

On the one hand, neoliberalism glorifies a particular subgroup of the precariat. On the other hand, neoliberalism benefits from the denial of social rights and the constant aspiration of flexible workers to upward mobility into more stable employment. Ideologies of the creative class supply an alibi for the ossification of more insidious forms of precarity. In general, precarity involves a seepage into the world of work of the 'informal and mundane degradation' formerly confined to unrecognised reproductive labour. The basic stake of precarity is the continued imposition of work and of sharply graded social stratification (Vishmidt, 2005; Kapur, 2007: 167). There is thus a need to connect 'smooth' forms of 'self-precarization' to 'rigidly repressive forms of labour discipline' (Raunig 2007), bearing in mind differential access to social power and voice across precarious positions (Shukaitis, 2006). For instance, the idea of horizontal distribution and connection within creative industries is a 'technique of obfuscation' promoted with 'great rhetorical energy', which conceals the 'dark side' of exploited labour (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.).

While flexible workers are now central to the economy, this set of workers are viewed as peripheral in the public mind and are denied social rights. While central in terms of production (especially of information, the raw material of the immaterial economy), precarious workers are peripheral in terms of rights (Foti, 2004). Occasionally, terms like 'precariat' even appear in mainstream studies, with all kinds of reactionary connotations, usually focused on social dissociation and echoing older ideas of the lumpenproletariat or rabble. These accounts portray the precariat as 'self-victimizing agents of their own exclusion', in a 'self-chosen loser existence', irresponsible and refusing to be neoliberally governed, hence needing greater state control. Raunig believes this bogeyman is formed as a defensive reaction to the 'monster' of the precariat and its centrality within contemporary capitalism (Raunig, 2007). Social changes arising from precarity, such as the declining birthrate, lead to pressures to reinforce traditional forms of oppression which are unsustainable in precarity, such as traditional gender roles in reproductive labour (Fantone, 2006).

There are also periodic moral panics about young people who are outside work and education, termed 'neet' in British press discourse, and with slightly different emphases in different national contexts (sometimes on part-time work, sometimes alternative subcultures, sometimes the propensity to live with parents or housemates rather than start a family, and sometimes the knockon effects such as social withdrawal). It is closely related to the discourses on 'social exclusion', 'chavs' and 'anti-sociality'. Precarity is viewed as causing deviance, dissatisfaction with society, low birth and marriage rates, low savings and investment, and so on (Fantone, 2006). This framing of the precariat as victims at best and a social problem at worst both denies agency and voice and contributes to repressive measures aimed at marginal people. It often uses a certain doublespeak: concern with exclusion is really concern with what is perceived as people's failure to "include" themselves in the system on the system's terms; people are then to be "enabled" or "given opportunities" – often euphemisms for coercion – to be "included", in effect, to be forced to circulate, communicate, work, etc.

It seems that social norms across a number of fields (from gender and the 'crisis of masculinity', to anti-immigration sentiments, to work-ethics and ideas of personal responsibility which assume that work leads to security, to the sense of relatively included groups of being part of a public who should be – but increasingly aren't – listened to as an in-group, and their resultant aversion to militant protest) remain oriented to the social system of the previous phase. As Gramsci (1971: 426) argues, there seems to be a lag between socio-economic changes and corresponding changes in social ideologies.

The decline of secure employment has produced terrified reactions from mainstream authors such as Richard Sennett (1998), who fears that values such as trust, community spirit and the importance of work are collapsing. In fact, it is possible to speculate that the current 'security' hysteria, from anti-'crime' fanaticism and 'terror' scares to discourses of 'broken Britain' and cultural decline, are actually displaced responses to the death of Fordist forms of social inclusion, the resultant 'unhomely' experience of older people in the current world, and longings for a return to an earlier period (often the 1950s). Paradoxically, these reactions against neoliberalism also provide the ideological basis for its continuation, feeding into the system's repressive projects. Existential feelings of insecurity, unease and precariousness have been channelled into fear of difference, and hence into reproducing the conditions of insecurity, unease and precariousness.

Take for instance racist anti-cosmopolitanism, from the tabloids to Nazis like the EDL. Migration is not a cause of precarity, nor a reason for its spread; it is often an effect of precarity. But migrants are scapegoated as 'carriers' of precarity, who somehow embody and import global problems into what is imagined as a secluded sphere. Attacks on migrant rights actually reinforce precarity by aiding the system in segmenting labour markets and pushing down working conditions. Similarly, the plethora of problems labelled as 'crime' are bound to increase as people become more insecure, since they provide survival strategies. This is a structural effect, but it is misrepresented as a problem with individuals' moral character, or even an ideological effect of neoliberalism (increasing "selfishness"), rather than an effect of structural changes. Again, the resulting crackdowns help the system segment groups from one another and increase its repressive arsenal. From their articulation in moral panics and a sense of social breakdown, crackdowns seek to hold the dying, economically-unrooted old "society" (conditioned on inclusion and the citizen-subject) together by violence, using state power to attempt to maintain a superstructure for which there is no infrastructure. This drive to violence is used by neoliberalism to enhance its own power, firstly by articulating certain strata of (mainly older) people into its support-base, channelling discontent into pro-system positions while failing to address the causes of existential insecurity, and secondly by using crackdowns to attack resistance and the microsocial symptoms of precarity. It mostly focuses on attacks on difference (how people dress, language-use, sexuality, diffuse social sanctions) in ways which concentrate the effects of insecurity among people who are already marginalised and insecure. Similarly, dominant discourses of 'terrorism' operate to channel people's sense of being at risk away from awareness of the precarity of work-conditions and social inclusion.

Autonomists analyse precarity as a capitalist response to the resistance movements of the 1960s-70s. During this period, the 'refusal of work', the exodus from Fordist labour into various kinds of social marginality, was a common form of resistance epitomised by the figures of the 'slacker' and the 'dropout' and the creation of autonomous forms of community (Shukaitis, 2006). This is viewed in autonomism as an act of exodus from Fordism. Young people of this generation, associated with the rebellion of 1968, were disenchanted with the rigidity of the post-war workplace and often refused to capitulate to full-time work routines (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 180-1). Workers in this period often demanded more flexibility and free time, 'more money, less work'. Capitalism has responded by effectively chasing the resisters into the field of life-outside-work, colonising this field with expanded forms of labour (Mitropoulos, 2005; Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.; Federici, 2006; Frassanito Network, 2005). Neoliberalism 'seized' the exodus 'in order to create a forced activation of the individual labour beyond state regulation' (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). As a result, the boundaries between work and the rest of life has been blurred. This, argues Mitropoulos (2005), is why 'more work', rather than 'more money' or 'more life outside work', comes to seem the solution to poverty. Precarity is also viewed as a response to wage struggle, resulting from attempts to push down wages through offshore production, decentralised production networks and deregulation (Negri, 1998: 210-11). It is also often linked to the shift from industrial to immaterial labour (Federici, 2006).

Economic Context of Precarity

The dominant strategy of capital accumulation today works through 'global cities', regions built around economically important cities which act as concentration points for rare (and therefore profitable) concentrations of services to major companies (Friedmann, 1986; Sassen, 1991). The quest to become a global city is highly competitive, and largely depends on where companies choose to site their headquarters and offices. It thus depends on being as appealing as possible, both subjectively (by playing to capitalist prejudices, purging the poor, getting rid of other uses of urban space) and objectively (by providing bribes to companies, low taxes, infrastructure such as roads, cheap labour, etc). London was one of the first global-city aspirants, and the supposed boom of the 1980s was built on this development path (affecting London and its wider region through the South of England). Today, London is challenged by dozens of cities across the world adopting similar approaches.

The side-effect of a global city development model is that the rest of the territory, which in a Fordist model would be integrated into national welfare systems and production, is effectively abandoned, left to sink or swim – most often to sink – of its own accord. The North and Midlands of England are victims of this process, losing most of their manufacturing capability and gaining very little from the growth of London. Nottingham council, like most urban councils, constantly try to reproduce the global city model, but Nottingham is too small and unimportant to ever be a global city or even a major subordinate hub. In effect, cities like Nottingham are left picking the crumbs from London's table – such as the benefits of regional development grants for building big empty office blocks, and the money brought in from rich students from the South of England or abroad.

Such areas can become potential sites for constructing autonomous zones, particularly around the borders, outside the city centre and system-inserted sites. 'Where a centre emerges, a periphery is also created. As traffic in goods intensifies in the shopping malls, the surrounding area becomes fallow land'. Spaces temporarily freed from their market value can be converted for other uses by non-conventional users, creating a renewed diversity, attracting the people who are similarly left 'lying fallow' (Paoli, 2004) – spaces like the art centre, Sumac, Squat Lobster, Crocus Cafe; in parts of Europe, entire squatted zones and massive social centres in former factories. In this analysis, such spaces are viewed as necessary to be able 'to think and act beyond the constraints of the market', which can either be an alternative perspective or at the very least a moment to breathe deeply inbetween periods of exploitation to recover our productivity. They can be more than a temporary respite, however. 'Periphery and centre depend on one's point of view. If the periphery sees itself as the main setting of possibilities, then it stops being peripheral' (Paoli, 2004). For instance, some indigenous groups paradoxically see their shanty-town in the capital as a periphery of their core zone in the country's rural hinterland (Isbell, 1980). It is through such reversals of perspective that the possibility of an 'outside' emerges.

This accumulation strategy is the root cause of the state's constant shortage of money. Partly because states are seeking to attract capitalists, they both cut back their tax base and increase spending on events and infrastructure which aid capitalism, leading to 'fiscal crises' (Friedmann and Wolff, 1982: 327). The state is short of money because of its dual reluctance to tax transnational capital and to cut those areas of spending which contribute to 'competitiveness'. The brunt of the resultant scarcity tends to be borne by those areas of spending which do not contribute to attracting capitalists, namely, those which help the poor: free education, universal healthcare, benefits, social housing and so on. Often, workers and poor people are expected to meet the costs of arrangements which benefit the capitalists, such as travelling long distances to work because of the lack of affordable housing in global cities. Another aspect of the state response has been to raise the retirement age, a move which expands the pool of precarious workers but also causes a slowdown in economic productivity and growth (Henwood, 2005).

The crisis in the universities has a particular origin in strategies to attract capital. One of the tricks of neoliberalism is to 'overproduce' university graduates in relation to available work, in order to reduce the cost of skilled labour and attract companies to an unemployed, skilled labour pool. Increasingly, therefore, there is no guarantee of well-paid employment after university. Ironically, the state is assuming that students can afford to pay back massive debts at just the time that the correlation between university achievement and well-paid employment is evaporating. With the replacement of comprehensive wages with the sale of small packets of time, the assumption that education can be paid back from later income is naive. It has repeatedly emerged that some groups of students – notably women, and students with disabilities – are unlikely to benefit economically from university (c.f. Fantone, 2006). In short, the state is encouraging higher education as a way to boost profits, but displacing the costs of this strategy onto students.

Credit also has a special role, in two ways. Firstly, it sustains the income of consumers in rich countries, whose wages are declining due to neoliberalism. While the reasons people do this have to do with preserving their own standard of living, protecting their 'social wage', but it also sustains the system, by reproducing North-South dominance and keeping up a level of consumption sufficient to sustain profits. Workers in places like China may be a good source of cheap goods, but they aren't being paid enough to buy enough of these goods for the companies to profit – companies need people who are rich enough to buy the goods, and at the moment, this is mainly western people. This credit is coming to the North, especially America, from 'emerging' economic powers in Asia and the Middle East, who lend to America and the North based on their reputation as stable places to lend. This reputation is actually a result of their production position in the previous, Fordist period, and so is potentially unstable (Arrighi, 2007). In effect, Chinese, Japanese and Saudi investors profiting from cheap production and oil exports are subsidising western living standards by giving out loans. Much of this credit will never be repaid. It's effectively a device for transferring resources. And eventually they'll have to stop lending, since it's only a good bargain because of things which don't apply any more. Actually, it's already being undermined, because Chinese workers are starting to demand higher wages and undermine the flow of profits which funds credit. This has been viewed as the underlying cause of the current crisis (Midnight Notes Collective, 2010). Though benefiting from exploitation elsewhere, western workers aren't really getting a good deal here: what used to be paid as wages or 'social wage', and is now funded by loans, goes along with all kinds of conditionality attached to the loans. Credit, and credit-worthiness, are being used as a system of surveillance and regulation which divide Northern populations into included and excluded groups, varying people's standards of living based on how conformist, and therefore credit-worthy, people are (Gill, 1995).

Social Effects of Precarity

Precarity has far-reaching social effects, which give rise to both challenges and opportunities for dissent. One of these is the decline in the feeling of being part of the national social collective, a situation which generates increasingly oppositional stances in autonomous/activist subcultures and among the urban poor. This is an effect of the disintegration of earlier connections between inclusion and the organisation of work. Labour relations have become disconnected from citizenship, because of the globalisation of capitalism (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 59-60). Fordism relied on the articulation of the two as a way to incorporate workers as citizen-subjects. Today, however, workers engaged in transnational networks (who include many of the more 'included' workers) have little in common with citizen-subjects, and are systemically divided from people who are located mainly in local forms of protection (2008: 61). Hence, the citizen-subject and the public have long ceased to be effective constitutive powers for democratic politics (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). As a result, new struggles, such as those of migrant workers, emerge at points where the inclusions and exclusions of capitalist economics and the state fail to overlap (Nowotny, 2004).

Another of the effects of precarity is that it decomposes social bonds (Precarias, 2004). The 'yo-yo hours and days' of precarious work undermine the possibility of social relations (Tari and Vanni, 2005). Social atomisation is a major barrier to political struggle for groups such as migrants, and recreating social spaces itself goes a long way towards producing resistance. Writing on the Universal Embassy, an undocumented migrant project in Belgium, he argues that it recreates the possibility of residing or moving in a context where the perspective for a local existence is constantly being destroyed by the dominant system, temporarily establishing a partial liberation from the regime of territory and creating the perspective of an outside. 'The pivot of the various activities is the attempt to counteract the initial situation of social atomization by creating a context of experience and articulation' (Nowotny, 2004). There are also demographic and social effects, as people are less likely to have children when their finances and relationships are insecure.

Another effect is psychological over-arousal. 'Nobody can conceive of his or her own life in a more relaxed and egalitarian manner. S/he who relaxes may very well end up on the streets, in the poorhouse or in jail' (Berardi, 2009: 119). Attention is besieged and scarce, denying time for love, compassion, pleasure, understanding and so on (2009: 41, 46). There is also an imbalance between the supply of information and the limited attention available for it, effectively causing a crisis of overproduction of stimulation (2009: 44-5). Intellectual competences are devalued as a result (2009: 51). We should think here not only of the plight of the humanities in academia, but also the plight of local, indigenous and tacit knowledges.

One of the invisible effects of precarity is widespread psychological pain. Sociologist Elisabeth Katschnig-Fasch found in interviews that precarious workers were often miserable, despite the taboo in talking about such misery. Workers suffer from a lack of recognition for work, which often leads to a sense of guilt (see Weber, 2004). Precarious workers also risk losing the ability to distinguish between life and work, public and private spaces, or the world of work and one's sense of self or one's personal social networks (Fantone, 2006). Anxiety has become a general social condition, but its effects are nevertheless different: the fear among the excluded of slipping in status is not the same as the fear of the marginal of being excluded, or that of the excluded (and autonomous) who fear repression and violence (McMarvill and Los Ricos, n.d.). Precarity generalises anxiety, but its effects are highly variant.

It is sometimes argued that precarity and flexibility are not solely negative phenomena, particularly as experienced by young women. The research of the Italian feminist group Prec@s revealed that many young women do not want a return to the 'security' their mothers had, which corresponded with unrecognised reproductive labour and gendered subordination. They seek autonomy and creativity, rather than security (Fantone, 2006). Similarly, in the global South, neoliberalism was often able to draw on frustrations of informal sector workers against the corporate system from which they were excluded.

Theorising Precarity

The usual motivation for theorising about precarity is the desire to draw on the energies of resistance it unleashes. Autonomists argue that, not only does precarity involve the recuperation of a previous autonomous exodus, it also retains an extra-systemic power: 'new forms of living and new social relationships are constantly developed and reinvented, and processes of precarization are also productive in this sense', as a source of potentially empowering subjectivities (Lorey, 2010). Labour practices which on the one hand spring from post-Fordism, on the other hand also contain potentialities which arise from workers' own demands and refusals (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). For example, the sense of being unable to plan for the long-term leads to critiques of pressures to maintain stable families and gender-roles (Fantone, 2006).

The concept of precarity is viewed as helpful because it enables the integration of perspectives drawn from different positions and struggles. Sarrantonio argues that the concept of precarity is 'a way of looking at the system as a whole without ignoring the multitude of movements and individuals', adding scope to individual and group actions which might otherwise seem ineffectual and pointless. It is like a cracked looking-glass which can be seen as a whole or through each crack. Precarity as a concept captures the glass as a whole, while recognising its cracked nature. Hence, organising around precarity means 'embracing the myriad of personal and political struggles that occur through every moment of our lives'. It means embracing dialogue about everyday life and connections between movements, linking these to 'larger political questions' and a 'larger perspective' (Sarrantonio, 2008).

The precariat is viewed in such perspectives as a new social subject which is potentially frightening to the dominant system. Tsianos and Papadopoulos (2006) argue that it is not new forms of labour but the embodied experience of exploitation which produces new subjectivities, hence the importance of precarity as the point where immaterial production meets the crisis of Fordism. New social subjectivities tend to mirror experiences of precarity rather than immaterial production itself. They view precarity as a useful concept because it 'drifts constantly away from its social determinants', providing space for thinking alternative futures. Similarly, Raunig (2007) argues that what the precariat continues from the proletariat is not a fixation with social position or a historical teleology, but the status of being a 'sleepless monster', a spectre haunting capitalism.

This said, it is only when it articulates its positive side, rather than its anxiety, that the precariat is frightening. Only a subject not prepared to participate in the politics of inclusion is frightening for the system (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). Such a subject is not identical with its position in the social system, but rather, involves a kind of departure from it, an emergent outside. It involves an excess over existing organisational forms such as the party, union and identity politics. These are insufficient because they fall foul of 'not having the time', of a timeline which is not that of the precariat, and because their conditions, such as 'statism of labour and interventionism of the state' are absent in the terrain of precarity. Labour fragmentation makes trade unionism difficult: it is impossible to protect immeasurable forces through bargaining; protection would have to take a different form (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006).

A rather different view of precarity or precariousness, focused on existential rather than economic aspects, is put forward by Judith Butler. Butler argues that precarity should be linked to a deeper ontological precariousness which comes from people's vulnerability to violence and silencing. Precarity refers to conditions which threaten life in ways which are outside one's control (2009: i), because of 'failing social and economic networks of support' (2009: ii). It is a condition which brings together those who are not viewed as 'recognizable, readable or grievable', as lives worth sheltering which if lost would be worth mourning (2009: xii-xiii). Precarity as a social condition thus derives from the imposition of vulnerability by social norms, arising from political decisions and social practices which protect some but not others. Following Achille Mbembe, Butler conceives this vulnerability as perceptual as well as material, arising from the classification of certain lives as not grievable (Lorey, 2010). Such exclusions are constantly challenged. Movements of precarious people are directed against social exclusion, exposing and opposing it (2009: vi). This raises the question of how 'the unspeakable population speak' and articulate claims (2009: xiii). Lorey (2010) argues that Butler's view identifies precariousness with vulnerability (or interdependence with others), which is an extension of birth, since initial survival depends on others.

I would argue that Butler's account is problematic in certain ways. Butler's frame is problematically liberal; she assumes that something like normative status-ranking is unavoidable, and she does not distinguish between simply being harmed and the special kinds of harm or 'abjection' which arise from oppression and exclusion. She is mistaken in thinking that modern social institutions are designed to minimise precarity (2009: ii). Rather, they are designed to entrench it so as to produce social compliance, including by artificially creating scarcity and vulnerability. Furthermore, I would argue that the basic level of dependence is ecological, rather than social: people need a supportive ecosystem to avoid the risks of precariousness, which usually but not always includes other people. This said, it might be argued based on Butler's initial insights that capitalism entrenches the risk of abjection, and hence precariousness, through precarity, whereas more resilient economic systems seek to avoid the risk of abjection. Precariousness certainly results from failing networks of social and economic support, but this can be seen as much as a result of the onslaught of modern social forms as their deterioration. Agamben is here closer to the truth when he views homo sacer, the precarious or abjected person, as a product of modern logics of sovereignty."

More Information

  1. See the article in Wikipedia at,
  2. Good introduction in the DailyKos at
  3. Details on the Precarity Movement