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The "Precariat" is Not a Class

There is a scene in Gillo Pontecorvo's anti-colonial film Burn! where a British capitalist agent, played by Marlon Brando, explains the benefits of capitalism to a group of Portuguese slavers.  In order to convince them to accede to a slave revolution in time to co-opt the movement and retain their authority, he asks them to compare a prostitute to a wife.  The latter, he argues, is "property"––the husband "owns" her, pays for her means of existence––whereas the former is paid only for the job, has the precarious duty of paying for her own existence , and thus costs far less.  Aside from being a great comparison of structural gender oppression, the analogy is meant to explain the difference between the slave and waged labour.  The free worker, the proletariat, Brando's character argues, still remains a slave but has to also pay for the terms of hir slavery, bearing the cost of the yoke of capitalism; if s/he starves, if s/he is homeless, if s/he cannot find work, the capitalist need not worry: there will be other workers forced by the logic of capitalism to sell their labour, to compete for jobs, to prostitute themselves.

I am reminded of this analogy whenever I hear the term "precariat" which is being floated, in some leftist circles in North America and Europe, as a concept that should replace "proletariat" (much as "multitude" was floated in the same first world theory circles around fifteen years ago).  The marxian concept of "proletariat" is outdated, we are told, because work under capitalism has changed significantly.  Now work is becoming more-and-more "precarious", privileged white collar jobs are contractual and the petty bourgeois no longer has the same privileged future it had twenty years ago, labour is becoming casualized, and the disintegration of working class job security ultimately means the disintegration of the "traditional" proletariat class.  Thus, the argument goes, emerging from the ranks of the would-be petty-bourgeois and the former proletariat is the new precariat––a new class category, perhaps the new revolutionary subject!

the "precariat" is not necessarily "dangerous" and definitely not "new"

In some ways I am sympathetic to the concept because, being a precarious worker myself (and having been involved in a strike that attempted, and failed, to fight casualization), it partially characterizes a type fo labour that is becoming more and more common at the centres of capitalism under the current crisis.  And yet, the concept lacks the same explanatory depth as proletariat and proletarianization because: a) precarity is not new and has been a common aspect of global labour for a very long time; b) the category "proletariat" and connected analyses of "proletarianization" already include an understanding, and a much more thorough and scientific understanding, of precarious labour.  Indeed, the reason I think of the aforementioned scene from Burn! whenever I hear the term "precariat" is because it is a scene that describes the emergence of a proletariat in precarious terms.

Although the casualization of labour at the centres of capitalism, amongst a population of workers ["white collar" and/or unionized workers], might appear new, it has been a defining characteristic for the majority of the world's waged labour since "the rosy dawn" of capitalism.  When Marx initially theorized the category of proletarian and waged labour, he understood precarity as being an important characteristic of this class––a characteristic that, in fact, was normative when Marx wrote Capital.  Precarity might not have been defined by contractually limited appointments but it was still a reality that Marx took into account.  The labour movement was in its infancy, union protection was unheard of (and is still, it should be mentioned, a pipe dream for the vast majority of the world's workers), and secure desk jobs and careers were the purview of a tiny privileged minority (which is still the case).

For  Marx and Engels, the proletariat is economically defined by the need to sell hir labour and this is most often a precarious affair.  Torn from the land, turned into an army of "free" waged labour, the proletariat is forced to struggle to sell hir labour, a struggle that often obscures the fact that s/he is needed by the capitalists who force hir into this precarity.  Even though the capitalist needs the proletariat to exist as a capitalist, and the truth is that capitalism and not labour is ultimately precarious in that its existence depends on the surplus value derived from waged labour, the proletariat often finds hir existence precarious because s/he is made to pay for this existence on the wages paid for by hir labour.  Capitalism needs the worker to feel dependent on the existence of capitalists, when the truth is the opposite, and so quite often needs the worker to feel as if hir existence is precarious.  But when the worker is pushed far enough into a precarious existence then the slogan of the Communist Manifesto becomes less hollow: "you have nothing to lose but your chains."

Furthermore, precarity is a powerful lever for capitalist hegemony: the reserve army of labour, the threat of joblessness, the fact that "hew we can fire you because there are others who would love to have your job"––this was already included in the concept of proletariat and so precariat tells us nothing new.  To assert "precariat" is simply to describe a surface characteristic, a regional quirk of waged labour at the centres of capitalism; it is an idealist judgment based on banal appearance and a general ignorance of the terms it is meant to displace.

In some ways the "precariat" is an awkward way to conceptualize proletarianization.  That is, in times of crisis, multiple sectors of waged labour will be dragged down to the level of the proletariat, losing whatever gains that were won and conceded by the ruling class during times of stability.  And if the crisis is significant, then even some sectors of the ruling class, or at least its ancillary departments, will also be pushed into lower class positions.  Under crisis, when capitalism cannot afford to grant concessions if its most powerful minority desires to continue extorting significant surplus value, precarity will reign supreme.  There will even be job sectors that have traditionally avoided proletarianization that will, at certain historical junctures, be reconfigured so as to be brought in line with capitalist logic.  The casualization of university labour, for example, is the result of universities, hold-overs from those periods directly before the coherence of the capitalist mode of production, being reconfigured according to the dictates of capitalist accumulation.  Here precarity, defined by contractually limited appointments, is an echo of the far more pernicious and frightening precarity that greeted the emergence of proletarian waged labour during the process of so-called primitive accumulation.

So what I find most interesting about this concept of the "precariat" is that it seems to be the result of a bewilderment, amongst activists who are only just encountering the naked fact of brutal capitalism, that follows a confusion of categories.  For if the revolutionary subject was understood to be the proletariat, and the proletariat was primarily understood at the centres of capitalism as the industrial and unionized worker, then casualization severely damages this already erroneous understanding.  That is, if the proletariat was understood to be a secure and unionized worker then this category is becoming less and less prevalent; this [false] version of the proletariat vanishes along with the terms of its existence.  And maybe the unionized worker is no less underprivileged and revolutionary than a precarious white collar worker; maybe the precarious industrial worker and the precarious office worker are in the same "precariat" boat, bound together by the fact of precarity.

And yet precarity cannot, in any scientific way, describe concrete economic classification––that is, it cannot be the basis for class positionality.  A precarious university teacher that might make around $100,000 a year, regardless of the casual contractual nature of this job, and who imagines that s/he is a brilliant and maligned intellectual that deserves a tenure position that will never come, necessarily has different interests than a non-unionized contracted janitor.  None of this is to say that the university teacher is not in the process of being proletarianized, or that there are not other university teachers who make less than a quarter of this salary, but that precarity is not a class qualification.  It is simply one of the vicissitudes of waged labour, and it manifests starkly during times of crisis or at points when certain jobs are being adapted to the always shifting interests of capitalism.

There is no precariat united on a generalized and potential class interest, especially when some of the newly minted precarious workers are complaining, as some did during the so-called "occupy" movement (which is where, we must remember, the concept of "precariat" was popularized), that they were only angry because they were no longer guaranteed middle-class jobs.  And if the precariat is united by the demand of an end to precarious labour, then this is not a revolutionary class because this is not a revolutionary demand.  Nor is it the basis for any programme, any categorical rejection of what makes capitalism capitalism, any grasp of the division between the ruling and ruled class.

Just over a century ago, in an appreciative gloss of Anton Pannekoek's Differences in the Labour Movement, Lenin wrote:
"The bourgeoisie in all countries in practice inevitably elaborates two systems of governing, two methods of struggle for its interests and for the defence of its domination, and these two methods now replace one another and now interlace in different combinations.  These are, first, the method of violence, the method of refusing all concessions to the labour movement, the method of supporting all ancient and dying institutions, the method of uncompromising rejection of reforms.  Such is the substance of conservative policy, which is more and more ceasing to be in Western Europe the policy of the landlord classes, and is ever more becoming one of the varieties of general bourgeois policy.  The second method is the method of 'liberalism,' of steps towards the development of political rights, of reforms, of concessions, etc." (Lenin, Differences in the European Labour Movement)
Following Pannekoek, Lenin would argue that whereas the latter and liberal method produces reformism and opportunism within the working class movement, the former and conservative method––predominant during periods of capitalist crisis––often produces, at its initial stages (especially following liberal reformism) petty-bourgeois anarchist theories and eclecticism on the part of those suddenly faced with the iron fist of capitalism.

So now, during this phase of crisis at the centres of capitalism, the ruling class, so as to protect itself as a class, is employing a method that rejects concessions and, in this rejection, is assaulting every reform it permitted (though permitted after bloody class struggle) during its previous phase of stability.  A return to waged labour precarity is a result of capitalism's return to an "uncompromising rejection of reforms", but instead of understanding this as part of the logical vicissitudes of capitalism, those of us who benefited from a period of reforms would like to imagine that this is something new––a new stage, the emergence of a new class––because of our provincialist myopia.


  1. Spot on! And wonderful use of Pontecorvo; I referenced the same film in a dissertation chapter I was writing last week, as so much of what is depicted resonates in Honduran history - Marlon Brando's character had a real life existence as Frederick Chatfield.

    1. I suspect there were a lot of real life versions of the character composite played by Brando. Oh the British and their dodgy capitalist agents!

  2. very good piece, thank you!
    However i found a mistake (over-simplification) the worker doesn't sell his-her labour, but his-her labor power to the boss. So he or she is not paid for the labor, but for the maintaining of his labor power (his means of existence)

    1. You're correct: it was an over-simplication. I'm used to short-handing "labour power" (which is the correct and properly scientific category) as "labour", just as we tend to short-hand what is really a "labour power theory of value" to "labour theory of value", and often I just assume people are aware of this short-hand, but as you noted it would have been more precise––especially in this post––to have used "labour power."

  3. This was a great read your blog is one of my favorite to check out.


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