Precarity Movement

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Excerpted from an article by Andy Robinson.

For other excerpts, see also our general treatment on Precarity


The Precarity Movement

Andy Robinson:

"In addition to being a source of theory, precarity has become an organising focus for a range of groups across Europe, such as Precarias a la Deriva, Chainworkers, Intermittents du Spectacle, and [email protected] These groups have organised a range of protests and actions targeting aspects of precarity. Euromayday has become the flagship of the precarity movement. The first event in Milan involved 5,000 people in a flying picket which shut down chainstores. Subsequent events have drawn up to 150,000 (Shukaitis, 2006). The Mayday movement, which by 2006 spanned 16 cities, was an attempt to bring the spirit of summit protests to precariat organising (Brophy and de Peuter, 2006: 185). In Italy, the movement have even created a saint, 'San Precario', who is the patron saint of precarious workers and whose icons show up on protests (Federici, 2006), and has performed 'miracles' such as the autonomous reduction of prices (Shukaitis, 2006). Another Italian precarity action involved staging a fake fashion show, and then creating a scare around plans to disrupt it (Shukaitis, 2006). Such movements are sometimes viewed as a way of making the precariat visible (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 184). They are often combined with forms of militant investigation or co-research which seek to articulate and connect the voices of precarious workers and their strategies and resistance.

The precarity movement has initiated a switch in meanings of the idea of precarity. The movement is credited with appropriating and circulating what was formerly an entirely negative term, creating a new political horizon for positing new rights: flexicurity (security for flexible workers), unionisation of unstable forms of work, access to free culture and knowledge, cheap housing and travel, and so on (Fantone, 2006). The precariat are thus ambiguous, not simply the victims of precarization (Raunig, 2007). Indeed, one statement deems the term 'an offensive [i.e. attacking] self-description in order to emphasise the subjective and utopian moments of precarization' (Frassanito Network, 2005), and another terms it primarily an interior rather than imposed stance (Tari and Vanni, 2005). Over time, the movement has moved from the slogan 'stop precarity!' to a positive identification with the precariat, a 'multifaceted and diverse crowd' which viewed itself as a 'social movement' not a group of victims (Raunig, 2007).

The sheer diversity of the movement is impressive. Lorey (2010) argues that precarity protests have created alliances between groups such as cultural producers and knowledge workers, migrants, unemployed people, trade unions, and organisations of illegalised people. They provide a way of conceiving subjectivity which can bring together such diverse groups. The precarious do not have a common identity, but have common experiences on which such movements can build. Their singularity is produced through what they share with others as a process of becoming-common or constituent power which does not yet exist (Lorey, 2010). Raunig (2007) lists participant groups including migrants, autonomists and left-wing activists, art activists and cognitive workers. Brophy and de Peuter (2007: 185) suggest that the precariat prefers organising in affinity-based networks rather than bureaucratic organisations, and lists independent media activists, queer activists, undocumented migrants, squatted social centres and base unions among the participants.

In addition to such explicit movements against precarity, other forms of resistance can often be situated in relation to it. Van Veen (2010) argues that new cultural forms such as rave culture emerge as resistances within the field of precarity. They manipulate or 'remix' the 'scripts' of precarity, playing on the boundary between the reality of precarious labour and the ideology of radical, precarious workplay. For van Veen, the dominant order is 'inscribed' in fantasies of freedom, self-fulfilment and mobility 'at the same time that their precarity and consumption undermine the radical actualisation of their scripts' (2010). Rave culture functions by furthering these scripts to the point of excess, 'intensified to the point of jouissance' or lived enjoyment. Rave culture emerged as an unapproved 'cultural assemblage of exodus'. It thus contributes to further deconstructing the categories of labour and leisure. This is timely in the light of recent events: the challenge posed by the free party movement has re-emerged dramatically with the successful defeat of police repression at the Scumoween rave.

Other accounts emphasise the possibility of new forms of protest. Neilson and Rossiter use as their example here the model of sudden 'flash' protests which emanate in and withdraw into a space of quiet suffering, but which erupt unpredictably into public space, and are dangerous and powerful because of this unpredictability (2008: 67). This is similar to Hardt and Negri's view that the snake has replaced the mole (2000: 57-8). Neilson and Rossiter use examples such as migrant workers' occupations of public 'non-spaces' in Hong Kong and flash-mob-style protests by Indian taxi-drivers in Melbourne as examples of the modalities of precarious protest.

Migration and gender issues often intersect with precarity issues. Mezzadra (2007) argues that migrant struggles prefigure the struggles of the precariat, firstly because migration tests the limits of capitalist control, and secondly because the precariousness of migrant labour threatens to spread to the entire workforce. Demands are made to combine 'freedom of movement' with 'freedom of communication', linking knowledge workers to migrants (Bove et al., 2003). Attention is also drawn to the feminisation of much precarious labour (Precarias, 2004). The decline of the traditional family, due partly to the loss of the 'family wage', has created new commodified sectors such as fast food and paid childcare, which have mostly been filled by women workers. In addition, attributes traditionally assigned as 'feminine', such as affection, versatility and multitasking, are increasingly valued in the service economy (Fantone, 2006). On the other hand, the discourse of the precarity movement has been criticised by feminists for its emphasis on mostly-male creative workers (Federici, 2006; Vishmidt, 2005). The articulation of gender issues with precarity issues is a work of translation which requires innovative practices.

The precarity movement has sometimes been questioned for its lack of wider resonance. According to some authors, precarity has had difficulty gaining effectiveness in actually organising radical action (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 53). It has particularly failed to spread from its conceptual origins in countries in which an extensive 'Fordist' or 'corporatist' capitalism is currently being undermined to those, such as Britain, in which precarity does not seem exceptional or new (2008: 54). Precarity seems exceptional in countries like France, Germany and Italy largely because the previous Fordist arrangement seems normal. Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) argue that precarity emerged as a political concept partly because of the depressive mood after the failure of the Iraq war protests and the 'politics of fear' associated with a period of interminable global war. Fantone (2006) argues that the precarity movement mostly represents a generation of highly-educated young adults (aged about 20 to 40) in urban areas, most of them already politicised or socially "alternative". It has long been predicted that this generation would grow disaffected. Similarly, Federici (2006) argues that the movement's problems stem from its particular origins among highly educated activists to whom the narrative of immaterial labour as hegemonic appeals.

The precarity movement, emerging from a stratum of activists coming out of higher education who are facing precarity for the first time, sometimes fails to resonate with others who are already marginal, and view the prospect of ongoing precarious labour as 'nearly utopian' (Berlant, 2007: 275; Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Journalist Bob Herbert found hopelessness to be the basic emotional state among employed youths in Chicago: none expected to find work, or to be able to rebel and bring about change. Berardi says this is because the perception of decline is deeper than politics, amounting to a feeling of a collapse so total that it precludes alternatives (Berardi, 2009: 30). In practice, people caught in precarity seem to get caught in aspirational identification with the goal of constructing a 'less-bad' life, rather than opposing precarity (Berlant, 2007: 291; Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 57). Another problem is that precarity can be channelled into the demand for identity, and hence into far-right and communalist movements (Berardi, 2009: 94-5). Freelancers lacking a boss to fight can end up mobilised by nationalist and populist movements against social spending, as a substitute for the boss (Weber, 2004). Communitarians seek to freeze contingency to ward off precarity, and there are also risks that movements become trapped in the perceived security of global juridical recognition (Mitropoulos, 2005). Another problem is the ambiguous status of social networks. Tensions between networks as non-representational alternatives to hierarchy or as aspects of networked governance, with its own prevailing discourses, can be either productive tensions or produce the breakdown of networks (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.).

These criticisms have prompted responses. Supporters of the concept of precarity argue that divisions between more and less impoverished types of precarity reproduce the neoliberal divide-and-rule strategy from which such stratifications derive (Lorey, 2010), a point also made by Neilson and Rossiter regarding the dispute over whether migrants or knowledge workers are the paradigmatic figure of precarity (n.d.). I suspect this may exaggerate the extent to which divisions between included and excluded groups reflect ways of seeing and 'interests', differences in kind as well as degree. The more radical of the struggles of our time come from groups of people who are excluded, extremely marginal, or are actively seeking to create or preserve autonomy, and these groups are a world away from the desire for less adverse conditions of incorporation which comes most spontaneously to more included groups.

Many discussions of the precarity movement emphasise the need to recognise difference. Today, political organisation or composition must operate across borders because unstable conditions are now widespread (2008: 65). It is thus argued that precarity can't be viewed as grounding political struggles because its effects are too diverse (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 58). It does not provide a common cause for people separated by institutional and other divisions, such as citizenship status (2008: 64; c.f. Berardi, 2009: 93). Rather, it can function as a space in which different aspirations and struggles are articulated. Translation, as a way of bringing differences into relation, is here crucial (Neilson and Rossiter, 2008: 60; c.f. Butler, 2009: ix-x). The 'common' of precarity comes into being through translation between different, precarious positions, with movement recognised as having a determining force in constructions of precarity (2008: 64). Raunig (2007) observes that organisations of the precariat would have to foster the intercourse and exchange of differences, rather than their unification, creating a 'union in dispersion' or a combination in 'machines' rather than 'identitary vessels'. Similarly, the Frassanito Network (2005) attempt to imagine political subject-formation '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 labour'. This is theorised in terms of 'increasing communication'. Shukaitis (2006) similarly maintains that differences in the social positions of precarious groups produce differing forms of rebellion.

The Spanish feminist group Precarias a la Deriva argue that people's situations are now so diverse and singular that it is difficult to find either common ground or even clear differences. They argue for recomposition through coming together. 'We need to communicate the lack and excess of our work and life situations in order to escape... neoliberal fragmentation' (Precarias, 2004). Rather than a simple defence of established rights, the precarity movement needs to be reframed in terms of networking and solidarity across genders, generations and ethnicities. It also reclaims the term "precarity" from a dominant construction in which it is viewed as purely negative (Fantone, 2006).

It is, however, often theorised as a concept enabling struggle against the general development of conditions of labour (Frassanito Network, 2005). Stripped of guarantees, life and labour are still left with one option: political action (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). It is sometimes suggested that attributes and skill-sets gained from precarious labour, such as an eye for opportunities, networking, iconography and research, also enable new forms of dissent (Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 183-4). Others, such as Mitropoulos (2005), question whether there is any need for a device to unify workers. There is a worrying trend to seek the subordination of difference to sameness in any strategy which focuses on a particular identity-category as the basis of a common struggle. The limit to autonomism, therefore, is its emphasis on identity, its treatment of the precariat, immaterial labour, or the multitude as something akin to an identity-category with a definite social presence (even if its diversity is recognised in the small-print). This said, movements focused on precarity seem inclined to move beyond this limit through their emphasis on translation and dialogue across difference.

Back to Security?

A common response to precarity on the left has been an attempt to return to something like the Fordist order. Trade unions have generally reacted negatively to precarity and flexible work, which they view as a threat to working conditions and to the existence of the unions themselves, which are premised on organisation in stable workplaces. As a result, they generally seek a return to Fordism and re-regulation of employment. The same position is taken by some theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu. This is problematic because it fails to see how precarity is actually a way in which capitalism has recuperated the 'refusal of work' of the 1970s, or the flight from Fordist labour (Mitropoulos, 2005), and because it draws rhetorical force from the assumption that earlier conditions were good (Shukaitis, 2006). It also overlaps dangerously with the negative discourse on the precariat as social problem.

A more sophisticated, but also problematic, approach focuses on the idea of a basic income or guaranteed social wage. It is often suggested in autonomist theory that people are actually constantly doing unpaid work through the contribution of their abilities to communicate, adapt, produce emotional effects and so on. This is an extension of an older argument which views housework, subsistence production, childcare, and other unpaid activities as necessary parts of the reproduction of capitalism which are exploited without being paid. As a result, it is sometimes argued that people should demand a basic income or social wage, unconditional on specific jobs, to reward this unpaid work (Fumagalli, 2005). The belief that precarious working conditions are here to stay leads to a demand for more security for people in precarious work (Fantone, 2006). For instance, the French group Intermittents du Spectacle call for a continuous income for discontinuous work (cited Brophy and de Peuter, 2007: 186). As Neundlinger argues, '[i]f it is drummed into us that there is no more security, that we have to get used to flexibility and mobility, then as the precariously employed, we counter, "All right then... we demand – for all eventualities – an income!' (2004).

This view has faced a number of criticisms. One problem with this argument is that it keeps the wage tied to work, thus implying that only useful people should be rewarded. This implies a kind of psychological discrimination: only those people who are socially adaptive are rewarded. This is not in fact how autonomists use the idea, but it is implied in the nexus created between useful labour and the basic income. At its limits, this conception maintains that even activity with no social content is productive, since there is no fixed definition of value – even for instance a person acting out individual psychological imperatives which only they understand would be as much a source of value as any other kind of social action (Gulli, 2010). While this is true in terms of ethical value, this is not the kind of value which sustains neoliberalism; rather, neoliberalism is looking for special kinds of 'employable' value such as rapid, instantly communicable transmission of information free of ambiguity from the dominant perspective, and the demand to be communicable, to communicate and to cooperate (Lazzarato, 1996: 3).

Another problem is that the basic income demand leaves a lot of power in the hands of the state, looking to the state to solve the problems of the precariat. This is sometimes taken as dangerous in a world where the state already poses as the provider of security. It involves a view of the state as an agent which can and must stabilise capital, and it 'reinforces the dominant rhetoric of security in a period of global war' (Neilson and Rossiter, n.d.). Mitropoulos argues that 'law becomes the secularised language of prayer against contingency', even as the separation of law from economy becomes less plausible than it ever was. Resistance as exodus is thus retranslated into strategies of visibility, recognition and inclusion. In practice, the basic income tends to convert into compulsion to work or even into forced labour through workfare (Mitropoulos, 2005). At the very least least it is rather disempowering, denying the precariat the means to solve its own problems. Shukaitis views the demand for a basic income as risking an appeal to the nation-state or transnational state-like apparatuses (2006). Similarly, Iles (2005: 136) argues that the demand risks foreclosing struggles which seek to transcend capitalism altogether. It is also rather unlikely that states, squeezed by neoliberal demands to be 'competitive' in a global race to the bottom to attract corporations, will spend on establishing basic incomes, even if in the long term it would stabilise neoliberalism (which is questionable).

There is some controversy over whether the demand for a basic income could be successful within a capitalist society. Tsianos and Papadopoulos argue that a basic income is incompatible with waged labour, since it decouples income from work. They criticise campaigns of this sort for attempting to establish a new compromise of flexicurity (security in flexible work), rather than seeking to move beyond work. Instead of viewing precarious workers as a 'scared subject' needing protection, we should view the precariat as a frightening subject which bears the power to change the world (Tsianos and Papadopoulos, 2006). Neundlinger (2004) argues that it is a strategy to find a balance between life without limits and the experience of precarious integration, and is itself precariously balanced between the creation of free spaces outside capitalism and the state and the danger of reproducing exclusions around the logic of the normality of the current social order. Arguably, a basic income of a neoliberal type already exists in forms of income support (such as Working Tax Credits and housing benefit) which subsidise low wages. There seems little motive for neoliberalism to go beyond such measures. Lorey (2010) argues that neoliberalism does not want to permit any reduction in insecurity because it uses insecurity to govern. Indeed, a de facto basic income existed for national citizens in the North prior to the rise of neoliberalism, due to the rise of 'dole autonomy', in which people would use benefits and student grants to provide an income while remaining autonomous from capitalist power (Aufheben, 1999). The neoliberal attack is partly a response to this phenomenon, which performed a 'decommodifying' function disliked by capitalists and arguably affecting profits (Offe, 1984).

However, Brophy and de Peuter (2007: 186) suggest that a basic income may be capitalism's only way to address a future labour crisis arising from a failure to pay to sustain an intermittent workforce. This raises interesting questions. Capitalism seems to go historically through phases of more and less regulated periods, of organised capitalism and muddling-through, corresponding with upturn and downturn phases, and it's quite likely that if we ever come out of this recession, some kind of more organised capitalist system will result. And it is quite likely, on past experience, that today's radical demands, in suitably watered-down forms, will be partly satisfied (much like earlier labour demands were incorporated in Fordism, and identity-political struggles in neoliberal discourse). Whether this will actually make things better is another matter. Writers at the peak of Fordism, such as Marcuse (1964) and Debord (1967), tend to portray it as stultifying, socially closed, authoritarian, lacking a sense of an outside or alternative. In this sense, there are advantages to living in an era of recession, when options seem more open. It also seems that the transition between upturn and downturn phases, and between periods of capitalism, occurs in response to mass resistance which renders the previous composition of capitalism unsustainable. A victory for the basic income campaign would certainly be a huge step forward at a practical level, but without moving beyond the capitalist frame. Like the welfare state before it, it is likely to be conceded only if the system feels threatened by a more thoroughgoing challenge.

Reconstructing Autonomous Lifeworlds

The alternative to looking to the system for solutions it to reconstruct solutions of our own, at a grassroots level. A number of arguments of this kind have been made. Precarias a la Deriva argue that we are being denied the right to form our own existential territories, or sense of place. 'If this territorialization cannot take place in a mobile and changing work place, then we will have to construct more open and diffuse spaces' (Precarias, 2004). Tsianos and Papadopoulos (2006) write of reclaiming the ability to 'tarry with time', breaking the linear logic of time, in resistance to the stance of 'I don't have the time'. They call for a questioning of the centrality of work in life. Berardi argues that a strategy of 'subtraction' is possible, distancing oneself from the vortex of information flows and competitive pressures, but this strategy can only be pursued by small, autonomous communities (2009: 43). These suggestions point towards strategies which emphasise the reconstruction of autonomy.

It should be remembered that the difficulties of exclusion and exploitation have been reconfigured, so that needs and demands are no longer the same as before. Neilson and Rossiter (n.d.) cite a staff-writer that, in flexible work, days roll into one another, and with losing track of time, people also lose track of hope for a different tomorrow. Their struggle is thus less about the terms of work and more about reclaiming 'the time of life', the ability to create and to look forward to something new. They argue that this would mean in practice 'reinstating or inventing technics of value that address the uncertainties of economic and ontological life', creating a life where people do not have 'security' in the usual sense, but are active and free. These authors argue that the commons are no longer fragile spaces to be protected against enclosure, but must be actively constructed, along with new subjectivities (2008: 65-6). Mitropoulos similarly argues that a different future can only be constructed precariously, without grounds (2005). Authors like Virno (2004) similarly argue for an engaged withdrawal. But towards what kind of alternative? Such accounts tend to leave unanswered the question of the conditions for such a life.

We need to build our own responses to precarity, which create resilience and human security through networks and everyday relations. The precarity of workers in capitalism was initially created through dispossession from means of subsistence (Shukaitis, 2006). It thus follows that the reconstruction of subsistence can recreate the commons. The subsistence perspective (Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen, 1999) suggests the possibility of creating a systematic alternative to capitalist commodity production. This alternative can operate both at the level of basic necessities of life, and in terms of the reconfiguration of cultural production, education, etc. The dynamic is different from that implied by Neilson and Rossiter, because, while commons must be actively constructed, they also become a fragile heritage once formed, which must be defended against enclosure. There are still many places in the world, such as Chiapas and West Papua, and occasionally in Britain, as in the defence of social centres and squats, where the commons-enclosure logic still operates in its classical form. Furthermore, the more the commons are actively constructed, the greater the space they cover. The small autonomous communities Berardi writes of can be recomposed into wider movements as networks of subsistence. The commons can thus potentially form an entire autonomous zone taking shape under the nose of the dominant system. This move, especially if combined with a gift economy, creates the possibility for a basic income without recourse to a provider such as the state.

The recreation of subsistence is crucial here. Subsistence involves the creation of resilience in meeting basic needs, as opposed to maximising outcome at the expense of vulnerability to shocks. It also reorients from exchange-values to use-values, restoring the dimension of the outside which has been corroded by neoliberalism. Federici (2006) argues that we need to rethink and draw inspiration from the historical tradition of mutual aid in working-class communities. Prior to Fordism, a wide array of everyday responses to insecurity were very common in working-class life, such as mutual aid funds, allotments, and free services provided to neighbours. These, and similar experimental initiatives, form the basis for Colin Ward's work on anarchy in everyday life (e.g. Ward, 1982). Many of these practices have decayed because the welfare state seemed to make them superfluous. In effect, the system has destroyed these everyday responses by luring people into a false sense of security, hooking people on system-provided institutions, and then withdrawing or raising the costs of the systemic institutions once the alternatives have declined. There is an urgent need to reconstruct everyday, networked responses to precarity and to rebuild resilience. Federici (2006) also refers to indigenous communities in Bolivia and Ecuador as reproducing themselves effectively, generating sustained, very radical struggles against capital. Indigenous communities are often exemplary in showing how life can be lived outside of capitalist relations. The emerging Free Universities provide another example of the reconstruction of social relations in response to precarity. In effect, they reorganise education on a gift economy model. The multiplication of such initiatives across all fields of life can render capitalism and the state superfluous, recreating a basis from which sustainable movements of resistance can arise.

To conclude, the precariat is a frightening new subject because precariousness contains positive as well as negative aspects. Yet the precariat remains an anxious subject because the absence of guarantees from the state and capital provides existential insecurity. The current wave of cuts compound this situation, showing the unguaranteed nature of forms of 'commons' based on the welfare state in the current climate. In moving beyond vulnerability to such attacks, it is necessary to pose a systemic critique of work and commodification, and to reconstruct new forms of life based on subsistence and gift economies. In this way, we can move beyond making demands on a state we have too little power to influence, and at the same time create a basis to be able to sustain demands more militantly in the future. Ultimately, the effectiveness of responses to cuts and to neoliberal assaults on social rights depends on our ability to recompose autonomous spaces."


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