The rise of the precariat promises a renewal of the left
Next year is the 800th anniversary of one of the greatest political documents of all time. The Magna Carta was the first class-based charter, enforced on the monarchy by the rising class. Today’s political establishment seems to have forgotten both it and the emancipatory, ecological Charter of the Forest of 1217. The rising mass class of today, which I call the precariat, will not let them forget for much longer.
Today we need a precariat charter, a consolidated declaration that will respect the Magna Carta’s 63 articles by encapsulating the needs and aspirations of the precariat, which consists of millions of people living insecurely, without occupational identity, doing a vast amount of work that is not counted, relying on volatile wages without benefits, being supplicants, dependent on charity, and denizens not citizens, in losing all forms of rights.
The precariat is today’s mass class, which is both dangerous, in rejecting old political party agendas, and transformative, in wanting to become strong enough to be able to abolish itself, to abolish the conditions of insecurity and inequality that define it. A precariat charter is a way of rescuing the future.
Every charter has been a class-based set of demands that constitute a progressive agenda or vision of a good society. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A radical charter restructures, being both emancipatory, in demanding a fresh enhancement of rights as freedoms, and egalitarian, in showing how to reduce the vital inequalities of the time. Since the crash of 2008 and during the neoliberal retrenchment known as austerity, many commentators have muttered that the left is dead, watching social democrats in their timidity lose elections and respond by becoming ever more timid and neoliberal. They deserve their defeats. As long as they orient their posturing to the “squeezed middle”, appealing to their perception of a middle class while placating the elite, they will depend on the mistakes of the right for occasional victories, giving them office but not power.
This retreat of the labourist left does not mean progressive politics is dying. Costas Lapavitsas and Alex Politaki, who wrote for this site earlier this month asking why Europe’s young are not rioting now, are too pessimistic. Appearances deceive. The reason for the lack of conventional political activity reflects a lack of vision from the left.
This is changing, and quickly by historical standards. Let us not forget that the objectives and policies that emerged in the great forward march a century ago were not defined in advance but took shape during and because of social struggles.
I have been fortunate to witness the phenomenal energies within the precariat while travelling in 30 countries over the past two years. But a transformative movement takes time to crystallise. It was ever thus.
To make sense of what is happening, one must appreciate that we are in the middle of a global transformation. The disembedded phase dominated by the neoliberal Washington consensus led to the crisis of 2008 – fiscal, existential, ecological and distributional crises rolled into one. By then, the precariat had taken shape. Its growth has accelerated since.
What Jeremiahs overlook is that a new forward march towards a revival of a future with more emancipation and equality rests on three principles that help define a new progressive agenda.
The first principle is that every forward march is inspired by the emerging mass class, with progress defined in terms of its insecurities and aspirations. Today that class is the precariat, with its distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution and relations to the state. Its consciousness is a mix of deprivation, insecurity, frustration and anxiety. But most in it do not yearn for a retreat to the past. It says to the old left: “My dreams are not in your ballot box.”
The second principle is that a forward march requires new forms of collective action. Quietly, these are taking shape all over the world. No progressive moves can succeed without forms of collective voice, and the new forms will include a synthesis of unions and the guilds that for two millennia promoted occupational citizenship.
The third principle is that every forward march involves three overlapping struggles, which take time to spring into effective life. The first struggle is for recognition. Here, contrary to the Jeremiahs on the left, there has been fantastic progress since 2008.
Recognition has been forged in networks boosted by a string of collective sparks, through the Arab spring, the Occupy movement, the indignados, the upheavals in the squares of great cities, the London riots of 2011, the spontaneous actions in Istanbul and across dozens of Brazilian cities in 2013, the sudden rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy’s elections last year, the riots around Stockholm, the brave, prolonged occupation of the streets in Sofia, Bulgaria, until usurped by an oligarch’s thugs, and the even braver outrage of the precariat in Kiev in recent months. These events are messy, loosely linked at best. But the energy out there is vivid, if one wants to see and feel it.
What has been achieved is a collective sense of recognition, by millions of people – and not just young people. A growing part of the precariat perceives a common predicament, realising that this is a collective experience due to structural features of the economic and political system. We see others in the mirror in the morning, not just our failing selves. The precariat is becoming a class for itself, whether one uses that word or another to describe a common humanity. There is a far greater sense of recognition than in 2008.
That was necessary before the next struggle could evolve into a unifying call for solidarity. That is a struggle for representation, inside every element of the state. It is just beginning, as the precariat realises that anti-politics is the wrong answer. Again, there are encouraging signs that the energy is being channelled into action. We demand to be subjects, not objects to be nudged and sanctioned, fleeced and ignored in turn.
The precariat must be involved in regulating flexible labour, social security institutions, unions and so on. The disabled, unemployed, homeless, migrants, ethnic minorities – all are denizens stirring with anger and collective identity. We are many, they are few. The years of slumber are over.
The third struggle is for redistribution. Here, too, there is progress. The social democratic, lukewarm left has no clothes, and neither does the atavistic left harrying at its heels with empty threats, wanting to turn the clock back to some illusionary golden age. They would not understand the subversive piece of precariat graffiti: “The worst thing would be to return to the old normal.”
Unstable labour will persist; flexibility will increase; wages will stagnate. Now what? The struggle for redistribution is in its infancy, but it has evolved into an understanding of class fragmentation, of how the plutocracy seduces the salariat and placates the proletariat. The struggle will show that with globalisation a new distribution system must be constructed, far more radical than that offered by a living wage, however desirable that might be.
A precariat charter should revive a rights-based path towards redistribution of the key assets denied to the precariat, including security, control over time, a reinvigorated commons, assets essential for its reproduction and eventual abolition. This vision is taking shape, messily but perceptibly.
In 1215, the class of barons forced a powerful monarchy to concede to demands for recognition, representation and redistribution. Throughout history, emerging classes have done much the same, from the French Revolution with its radical Enlightenment and the wonderful achievements of Thomas Paine and others to the Chartists of the 19th century and the spate of human rights charters after the second world war. The progressives of the era have always reinvented the future. They are doing it now. Cheer up.