Book Summary – The Precariat (The New Dangerous Class)

Individuals in the “elite” strata of society dominate the world and own riches bordering on the absurd. Just below the elite is the “salariat.” This stratum includes professionals with full-time, secure jobs that might offer a chance to join the elite. “Profician” is next. People in this class exploit their proficient skills as contractors, short- or long-term; they expect to shift from firm to firm and place to place. The “former working class” follows. It includes manual workers with enough skills, such as construction or hairdressing, to build relatively stable lives. These people, for example, may spend their working lives as machinists or in other skilled production roles.

“One may spend years acquiring qualifications and then find they have become obsolescent or insufficient.”

The precariat is at the bottom. They cannot build careers. They work temporary, short-term jobs for cash, surviving payday to payday. “Assembly” is precariat work. They enjoy no labor protection or security. Their insecure status deprives them of national and “occupational identity.”

“The Four A’s”

The members of the precariat suffer “the four A’s: anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation.” Having no sense of a future fuels their anger. Living on the edge of society with no predictable income generates their anxiety. Their alienation derives from knowing that they work only under orders from others, not for self-respect or self-satisfaction. Anomie springs from being, like so much in the globalized world, commodities that others, in effect, buy and sell. Their lives have little human value, and the world offers them scant empathy. They never get a chance to specialize or professionalize; they must do the work available.

Workers on the Move

Prior to globalization, the free-trade economies had one billion workers. When China, India and the former Soviet countries embraced global markets, they added another 1.5 billion, changing the “capital-labor ratio.” In the face of this influx of cheap labor, existing workers lost any possible bargaining leverage.

“The precariat is defined by short-termism, which could evolve into a mass incapacity to think long term, induced by the low probability of personal progress or building a career.”

In 2005, China’s GDP was half that of Japan’s. By 2010, China’s GDP was almost equal to that of the US due to a spurt of growth that rose on the backs of the precariat. China invested in massive industrial parks where it sequestered hundreds of thousands of unskilled rural workers. Foxconn, for example, employs 900,000 Chinese workers, half in one location with 15-story manufacturing buildings. Each building houses manufacturing for one corporate customer: “Apple, Dell, HP, Nintendo” or “Sony.” Working and living conditions are harsh. Few workers stay more than three years. Disposability is a central reality of precariat life. By driving its citizens to work for low wages, China forces wages down worldwide. Employers replace workers who object to their pay or living conditions.

“Neoliberal economists sought to create a global market economy based on competiveness and individualism.”

Employers now contract with temporary workers to labor longer hours for lower wages than their existing full-time hires, so the temps are likely to replace these employees eventually. For example, the Swiss agency Adecco, offers 700,000 temporary workers for hire. The glut of temps creates a disincentive for firms to hire full-timers or to offer benefits or health care. This “growth in part-time jobs has helped conceal the extent of unemployment and underemployment.”

Gender Participation in the Workplace

Women worldwide hold an ever-increasing number of jobs. This volume of work does not suggest that their pay has improved compared to men’s pay, nor does it suggest an improvement in women’s working conditions. Developing countries such as China built their “export-based industrialization” on the work of the young female precariat. Women do a “disproportionate share” of precariat work, usually under short-term contracts or none at all.

“If everything is commodified – valued in terms of costs and financial rewards – moral reciprocities become fragile.”

In 2008, 50% of Japan’s working women held precarious jobs, as opposed to 20% of men. In France and Germany, 80% of part-time workers are women earning “a quarter less than men do.” These jobs – assembly, sewing, checkout clerking – do not represent a step up in women’s work status. Women who out earn their male partners predominate only in “low-income households.”

“The global economy has no respect for human physiology. The global market is a 24/7 machine; it never sleeps or relaxes.”

Following the recession in the US, in 2010, women worked half the jobs, a new precedent. Most employment analyses neglect a crucial substratum of women’s work: sex services. Employment surveys and government policies seldom include these exploited workers. The rise of the precariat features a trend of men shifting to “insecure, low-paid” work that once fell to women. Prior to globalization, working-class men in industrialized nations assumed and expected that they would be able to support a household on a “family wage.” Globalization destroyed that concept. The labor market now offers less work in skilled heavy manufacturing, which requires strength, and more work in services, which require neither strength nor “apprenticeship training.” The Great Recession brought greater male than female unemployment.

“Migrants”

Many people in the precariat are migrants. Though many revile them, deny them legal residence, and hound them from nation to nation, most of these people seek only a better life. In 2010, 3% of the Earth’s population – 214 million people – migrated across national borders. Most migration occurs within countries, 740 million people are “internal migrants.”

“Alienation arises from knowing that what one is doing is not for one’s own purpose or for what one could respect or appreciate; it is simply done for others, at their behest.”

Migrants flock to the US, which took in more than a million “legal” and 500,000 “illegal” migrants each year from 2000 to 2010. One-eighth of US residents and one-sixth of its workers were born abroad, the most since the 1920s. But not all migrants move from poor to wealthier nations. A third of migrants shift among rich countries and a third move among poor countries. Most are undocumented, work cheaply, and suffer job loss or deportation if they displease their bosses. Most migrants cannot find permanent homes in their new countries. They “circulate,” from nation to nation in search of work. They take temporary jobs, send wages home and migrate to the next temporary job. As other migrants flee environmental catastrophes, today’s world has more refugees and asylum seekers than at any time in history.

“Connectivity,” Leisure and Work Availability

Analysts regard young workers’ connection to the web and social media as a hallmark of the precariat. For example, people spent 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook in 2010. The glut of online connection suggests, especially among the young, a “collective attention deficit disorder syndrome.” As is characteristic of the precariat life, this fuels short-term interaction while diluting long-term commitment.

“Insecure people make angry people and angry people are volatile, prone to support a politics of hatred and bitterness.”

Because those in the precariat must respond instantly to their employers’ demands and are on call for work at any time, they do not control their schedules or priorities. Given the myriad technologies of connection, their work never actually stops. Members of the precariat work, and look for work, in such difficult conditions that they have little time or energy for leisure. Their daily exhaustion leads them to collapse in front of screens, for passive viewing or communication, rather than socializing. This furthers their alienation. Dissipation of leisure also leads to less and less active participation in “public life.” Thus the precariat are doubly disempowered. They have little standing in the countries where they work – even their native lands – and brutal schedules prevent them from developing any status.

“Basic Income”

Experts have often proposed a basic income solution, also dubbed a “social dividend” or a “citizen’s grant,” in response to the dilemma of the precariat. Such grants would offer a guaranteed “modest monthly payment” from a national government to all those residing legally in a country, including children. Each person would receive a cash card for a monthly amount with no restrictions on how to spend it, and no vouchers or usage limits. The disabled or those with special needs would receive more money. The payment would go to individuals, not households, since that would be more complicated.

“Those in the precariat have lives dominated by insecurity, uncertainty, debt and humiliation.”

In developed, first world countries, a basic grant would merge existing programs and eliminate paperwork and bureaucratic red tape. People would not have to meet any qualifying criteria: all legal citizens get money every month. If someone, for example, engages in criminal behavior, that is a matter for the courts. It would not affect that person’s monthly grant. The point of the grant is not social control, but “basic security.”

“The precariat has a feeling of being in a diffuse, unstable international community of people struggling, usually in vain, to give their working lives an occupational identity.”

If a government properly administers a basic income program, the money it provides would not dissuade people from getting work. Even if people found jobs, they would still receive their monthly grant – their guarantee of security. While the basic income is not subject to taxation, taxes would apply to all earned income at the usual rates.

“Women, often moving on their own, make up a greater share of international migrants than at any time in history.”

Objections to this concept include the fear of creating less-available labor, of inflation, of rewarding the lazy and of making those who work carry the weight of those who don’t. A more positive view regards the basic income as a “social dividend.” Everyone who inherits wealth owes a debt to someone in the past. Giving all citizens a tool they can use to “develop their capabilities” is really a dividend not from their peers’ labor, but from those who preceded them.

“A basic income, delinked from labor, would be decommodifying in that it would give people a greater capacity to live outside the market and be under less pressure to labor.”

A basic income “redistributes security.” It frees every citizen from worrying about food or shelter, so no one can fall through the bottom of society. This solution would offer hope and give people in the precariat a chance to develop skills so they could improve their lives and move up.

States should strive to provide “basic security” for their citizens to enable “equal opportunity.” To forestall corruption and undue politicking, a nongovernmental, independent organization could determine the amount of the monthly stipend. Western governments, after all, used billions of citizens’ dollars to bail out the private banking system. Why subsidize private-for profit enterprises but not the lives of every legal resident? Basic income could also address the absurd inequalities in pay between those in the financial and energy sectors and those in other fields.

“Every affluent person in every society owes their good fortune largely to the efforts of their forebears and the efforts of the forebears of less affluent people.”

Consider the 1976 “Alaska Permanent Fund,” which pays a portion of private oil company profits to every resident in the state. This fund can serve as a model for the redistribution of profits. Taxes on financial speculation offer another potential source of basic incomes. A basic income “decommodifies” citizens. If people can live in dignity without having to pursue uncertain, humiliating labor, they can gain the time and freedom to pursue their right to self-development.