Comments on “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?”

The September focus of the Great Transition Network forum is an essay by Guy Standing, “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?”  Standing’s essay and the comments on the forum address an important issue: economic insecurity. Unfortunately, with one exception, those comments echo Standing’s economic determinism. They neglect the need for personal, social, and cultural transformation that could proceed prior to and concurrent with economic transformation.  

Standing’s proposed solution is to impose taxes on profits from the use of common resources --”natural, social, civil, cultural, and intellectual” -- and use that revenue to guarantee everyone a basic income. He argues that approach “would enhance personal and ‘republican’ freedom..., provide [insecure workers] with basic security, and strengthen social solidarity.”

Economic security is essential. But toward what end? So long as the driving force in our society is selfish -- to acquire money, to get ahead, to climb a social ladder and look down on and dominate those below -- workers will be vulnerable to “divide-and-conquer.”

As William Robinson points out in his comment, the drive to “maximize profit over social need or any rational ordering of global society” is a major problem. Providing everyone a basic income would not necessarily address social needs or the rational ordering of global society.

Robinson touches on a fundamental alternative: to restore common resources “to humanity.” We can nurture a deep commitment to the common good of all humanity. We must move beyond zero-sum to positive-sum thinking. As Van Jones said, “The 99% for the 100%.”  

David Fell, with refreshing humility, suggests the evolution of a new consciousness. He points out that “the new and global common denominator is the internet” and asks “What sort of ‘consciousness’ might this facilitate?” He asks whether “common cause” can be found in shared experiences that involve the pursuit of knowledge and meaning. He points out that industrial class consciousness is “a sweaty masculine image, redolent with muscular struggle and macho conflict,” and asks, “What might a feminine alternative look (or feel) like?” And he says he’s not convinced that phenomena such as “class consciousness,” “proletariat,” and “precariat” remain viable, and concludes “something new – something emergent – may well be both required and imminent.”

As I see it, those labels are unnecessary. (All labels are dangerous and must used with the utmost care.) We need not separate people into rigid “classes.”

Everyone is a victim of the System, which is self-perpetuating. No one group is in charge. All top-level administrators are replaceable. We need not scapegoat “enemies.”

Capitalism as we know it, unfettered capitalism, does not work. But abstract Marxist ideology that claims that capitalism per se is the problem does not make sense either.

Some kind of mixed economy seems inevitable. How we label it hardly matters. Maybe no label is needed. We can allow for some profits, and establish a federal job guarantee that funds meaningful living-wage jobs to meet social and environmental needs. That approach is much more politically viable than a “handout.” The problem is not paid employment. The problem is the nature of work, which need not be oppressively hierarchical.

Deep personal and cultural changes are imperative. With “evolutionary revolution,” Gandhi’s term, our goal should be to produce a new economy, a caring economy, while at the same time undoing our conditioning that teaches us to either dominate or submit.