The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The precariat – a new class agent for transformation?

In this blog post, I provide a critical engagement with Guy Standing’s powerful book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). While it provides important insights into the conditions of the increasingly large informal sector of the economy, I will argue that several conceptual as well as empirical problems ultimately undermine the analytical significance of the book.

The emergence of the precariat

In this book, Guy Standing discusses the emergence of what he calls the precariat. One key demand of neo-liberal economics in the 1970s was that ‘countries should increase labour market flexibility, which came to mean an agenda for transferring risks and insecurity onto workers and their families. The result has been the creation of a global “precariat”, consisting of many millions around the world without an anchor of stability’ (P.1). The precariat performs highly casualised labour. It ‘is expected to do labour, as and when required, in conditions largely not of its own choosing’ (P.13). The situation of the precariat is more insecure than the situation of other workers. ‘While it must rely on money wages, these are lower and more variable and unpredictable than those of other groups. Income and benefit inequalities are mounting, with the precariat left further behind and dependent on an enfeebled community system of social support’ (P.45).

Their work relations differ drastically from traditional workers. ‘Many entering the precariat would not know their employer or how many fellow employees they had or were likely to have in the future. They were also not “middle class”, as they did not have a stable or predictable salary or the status and benefits that middle-class people were supposed to possess’ (P.6). The precariat are different from traditional workers including the working poor in that they lack a ‘secure work-based identity’. ‘Those in the precariat lack self-esteem and social worth in their work’ (P.21). In contrast to the traditional industrial working class, there is a lack of collective pride, dignity and identity. On the basis of these differences with traditional workers, Standing understands the precariat as a new, separate class. He argues that ‘we may claim that the precariat is a class-in-the-making, if not yet a class-for-itself’ (P.7).

Economically, it is the attack on the public sector, which furthers the growth of the precariat most. The outsourcing and privatisation of services has led to an increase in precarious, insecure jobs. ‘Globally, the public sector is being turned into a zone of the precariat’ (P.51). And here, it is especially women (PP.60-3) as well as young people (PP.65-7), who are affected by these developments and swell the precariat in disproportionately large numbers. High youth unemployment across Europe, for example, provides a pool of people willing to join the precariat with any job being considered better than having no job at all (P.77).

The global dimensions of the precariat

This is undoubtedly a significant book, highlighting the plight of an increasing number of people in the global economy. Importantly, it does away with the myth that precarious labour is mainly to be found in the Global South, in less developed countries. In reality, it is increasingly a common form of employment also in industrialised countries. What was once considered to be atypical labour, becomes more and more the norm. Being part of globalisation, the emergence of the precariat is understood as an international phenomenon directly linked to the increase in workers around the world. ‘Before globalisation, the labour markets of economies open to trade and investment had about 1 billion workers and job seekers. By 2000, the labour force of those countries had risen to 1.5 billion. Meanwhile, China, India and the ex-Soviet bloc had entered the global economy, adding 1.5 billion’ (P.28). The global economic crisis since 2008 has added yet further to this development with employers abusing the crisis to get rid of full-time employees. The crisis ‘gave firms an excuse to rid themselves of “permanent” employees and to welcome more temps’ (P.34). Standing outlines well the dynamics of global migration patterns in relation to the growing precariat. ‘Migration is growing and changing character in ways that are intensifying insecurities and putting many more into precarious circumstances’ (P.93). In China with 200 million migrant workers, migration is also a domestic phenomenon with plenty of further migrant workers in reserve. ‘The rural areas still contain 40 per cent of China’s labour force – 400 million languishing in dismal conditions, many waiting to be drawn into the precariat’ (P.107). Considering the international division of labour, Chinese migrants ‘are having an effect on how labour is being organised and compensated in every part of the world’ (P.109).

The precariat as an agent of change

In the final chapter of the book, Standing paints an inspirational picture of a ‘politics of paradise’, in which the precariat performs a crucial role. ‘It is time to revisit the great trinity – freedom, fraternity and equality – in developing a progressive agenda from the perspective of the precariat …; although the precariat is not yet a class-for-itself, it is a class-in-the-making, increasingly able to identify what it wishes to combat and what it wants to construct’ (P.155). In relation to the precariat’s agenda, its ‘foremost need is economic security, to give some control over life’s prospects and a sense that shocks and hazards can be managed. This can be achieved only if income security is assured. However, vulnerable groups also need “agency”, the collective and individual capacity to represent their interests’ (P.157). Key to a successful agenda of the precariat is strengthening the ‘right to work’, work encompassing not only labour, but also any other activity, not financially remunerated. ‘All work that is not labour needs to be made part of work rights’ (P.165).

Conceptual and empirical shortcomings

As innovative as this book is, there are conceptual shortcomings with considerable empirical implications. First, it is not clear, how the precariat may suddenly become the agent of transformative change. Early on in the book Guy Standing argues that the very nature of their work makes collective action difficult for the precariat. ‘Tensions within the precariat are setting people against each other, preventing them from recognising that the social and economic structure is producing their common set of vulnerabilities’ (P.25). Later on he notes that increasingly dissatisfied by their insecure situation, the precariat is in danger of becoming an easy prey for right-wing political groupings. ‘Unless mainstream parties offer the precariat an agenda of economic security and social mobility, a substantial part will continue to drift to the dangerous extreme’ (P.151). And yet, when he discusses the politics of paradise, it is the precariat, who is the crucial agent in this respect.  

Ultimately, this uncertainty about the roots of the precariat’s progressive agency can be related back to Guy Standing’s definition of the precariat as a new class, separate from traditional capital and labour. This definition fails to understand that the precariat, as other workers in more stable employment situations, have to sell their labour power, because they do not own the means of production. Hence, they are part of the working class, as are other workers. Of course, their concrete conditions differ markedly and this needs to be acknowledged analytically. Already in 1981, Robert Cox, for example, distinguished between established labour in secure employment and non-established labour on insecure conditions in the periphery of the labour market. Others have spoken of formal versus informal labour. Despite these differences of conditions, however, both groups are part of the working class.

Importantly, the pressures on the precariat affect all workers, including those in more stable working situations. Of course, people in secure employment with good salaries and job related benefits, the salariat in Standing’s terms, are in a much more secure position. The way their work has been transformed, however, shows similar aspects to the way casual work of the precariat is organised. Even the salariat faces constantly new regimes of monitoring and performance assessment. In Higher Education in the UK, for example, the so-called Research Excellence Framework (REF) puts enormous pressure on members of staff. There is uncertainty about the selection criteria as well as about what may happen to those colleagues, who are not submitted to this assessment procedure of research quality. Will they face redundancy? Will they be pushed towards teaching-only contracts? The division between the precariat and the salariat is over-emphasised by Standing, overlooking the common neo-liberal restructuring pressures, everybody faces in today’s global economy. It is these commonalities, which may provide the basis for joint resistance.

Unsurprisingly, the potential role of trade unions in resisting neo-liberal restructuring is brushed aside, as they are considered to represent merely the interests of the proletariat, a different class from the precariat. ‘In principle’, writes Guy Standing, ‘trades unions could be reformed to represent precariat interests. But there are several reasons for thinking this is unlikely. Trade unions lobby and struggle for more jobs and a larger share of output; they want the economic pie to be bigger. They are necessarily adversarial and economistic. They make gestures to the unemployed, to those doing care work and to “green” issues. But whenever there is a clash between the financial interests of their members and social or ecological issues, they will opt for the former’ (P.168). In short, by defining the precariat as a separate class from workers, Standing artificially discounts the potential role of trade unions in resisting neo-liberal restructuring.

The way Standing defines class indicates a further conceptual problem in his assessment of the precariat. When writing about a politics of paradise, Standing demands that ‘the precariat must insist that ethical codes become part of every occupational community and economic activity’ (P.165). By focusing on the potential agency of the precariat and moral codes of conduct, however, he almost completely neglects the structural dynamics of the capitalist social relations of production. In a production system based on wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production, both workers and capital need to reproduce themselves through the market. Hence, employers are locked into constant competition with each other, forced to outcompete fellow capitalists. If bankers have been involved in risky, reckless and sometimes even illegal investment practices, then this is not so much the result of greedy individuals, but stems from systemic pressures. Within the capitalist social relations of production, one financial institution needs to reap larger profit margins than another in order to remain competitive; hence the temptation to be involved in dubious practices (see Corruption in the banking industry). Consequently, the way forward cannot be through the establishment of ethical codes, but through a transformation of the way production is organised as a whole. Exploitation is rooted in the way the capitalist social relations of production are set up. Ending exploitation of the precariat as of any other workers requires, therefore, a change in these social relations of production.

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:
17 August 2012


  1. I think both sides here have overlooked some old Marxist analysis on today's "precariat." Is this not in the main simply that portion of the working class that is not in the "labour aristocracy"?

  2. Iam not convinced about the argument of a 'labour aristocracy', i.e. workers who are bought off by capital with profit generated from the exploitation of other workers. For example, while German capital benefits from the current export boom at the expense of peripheral countries such as Greece, German workers are not part of this success story. In fact, it is intensified exploitation of German workers, which is the basis of the export boom in the first place. See 'German workers and the Eurozone crisis' at

  3. I meant "labour aristocracy" as defined before Lenin. Originally, this was skilled vs. unskilled labour (agreed upon by both the original Socialist/Second International and the anarcho-syndicalists) and related pay scales.

    Today it can mean celebrity pay vs. office workers' pay, for example. The higher but non-managerial echelons of the "salariat" could count as today's "labour aristocracy."

  4. I agree, Andreas, Standing is overemphasising the difference between the "precariat" and salaried workers. Neo-liberal restructuring affects both types. In Japan, for example, permanent workers are obliged to long hours of (unpaid) overtime work. In turn, those who want to work lesser hours -- for instance, because they must look after children -- often (must) join the precariat. Standing also advances a very particular view of trade unionism as narrow-minded business unionism. Fortunately, however, this view is not universal.

    Critics of Standing may also be interested in Doogan's book "New capitalism.
    The transformation of work" (Polity 2009), as it provides an empirically informed critic of visions focused on the increasing precariousness of employment. It shows that long-term jobs have actually continued to grow and concludes with a world of caution in relation to the contribution "that radical or left voices make to the general zeitgeist of instability, precariousness and powerlessness ... This is not to say that researchers should not expose sweat shop industries and low paid jobs, but job insecurity is an issue that should be handled judiciously, taking care not
    to add to the general mood of precariousness (Dogan: 2009: 213).

  5. Another review of Guy Standing's book on the precariat can be found at


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