Precariat Vs Proletariat: The Rise of a New Class?

We all know from our own experience that the nature of work and the structure of the working class has changed over the years, particularly in the global North. These changes, according to thinkers on both the left and the right, explain the precipitous decline of radical struggles in the developed capitalist societies. According to most of these arguments, the working class has changed so radically under neoliberalism that it is no longer even a potential agent of radical social change. As such, workplace organization in the form of unions is no longer a priority for radicals. What I want to do in this essay is evaluate some of the changes in the structure of the working class in the global North. I will focus primarily on the US, as it is the context with which I am most familiar. I will first argue that the phenomenon of the precariat has been overstated, and secondly assert that the precariat, where it does exist, is but another section of the working class rather than a completely new social force.

Perhaps the most popular argument on the contemporary left for this decline of working class resistance is the claim that full-time, long-term work has been displaced by part-time temporary employment. This marks the emergence of what economist Guy Standing calls the precariat. According to Standing, the emergence of this new section of the working class has undermined worker’s attachment to any particular workplace or sphere of employment, making them less interested in organizing collectively into unions and other traditional forms of workplace organization. Put another way, the argument is that the development of casualized employment as the dominant form of work in the global North has objectively reduced the power of workers at the point of production. The conclusion Standing and others draw is that the working class is no longer the primary agent of social change in society, rendering Marxism irrelevant [1]. My intention is to argue against this.

There is some degree of reality to these claims about precarity in the global North. The restructuring of production under neoliberalism, the spread of what Kim Moody and others have called lean production, has resulted in the growth of temporary agency work, short term contracts, on-call work, independent contracting, involuntary part time work and the like.

However, US government data, mostly from the Bureau of  Labor Statistics, raises serious questions about the growth in precarity of employment. Many advocates of the precariat thesis, most recently Aaron Benanav writing for Viewpoint Magazine, claim that almost forty percent of workers in the US fall into this new social grouping. He cites a rigorous study by Harry Farber from the National Bureau of Economic Research in support of this statistic [2]. Unfortunately for Benanav, this forty percent figure includes workers usually excluded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from what they call “contingent and alternative employment arrangements” [3]. In other words, the data excludes workers who are regularly employed part time, often for years on end. These workers are concentrated in industries like hospitality, clerical administration, waste services, and healthcare. These are industries in which most workers, for the past five or so decades, have labored for about twenty-five or thirty hours a week. When we exclude these workers, whose employment is generally stable, the size and social power of the precariat is much smaller.

According to BLS data, the number of truly precarious workers, temporary agency workers, people on short-term contracts, on-call workers and the like gew from 18.7 million in 1995 to about 21.6 million ten years later [4]. Despite growing by about a million workers, the percentage of the precariat as a total of the labor force increased negligibly, from about 15.2 percent of the workforce in 1995 to 15.5 percent in 2005 [5]. Using data on employment and personnel supply services (temp agencies and so on) Moody estimates that the size of the so-called precariat grew most quickly from 1980 to 1995, as lean production and the casualization of labor spread rapidly [6]. Moody also found evidence that the size of this layer of the working class has stayed about the same since 2005. It may have even shrunk slightly in that period. In other words, the economic crisis of 2008 has actually reduced the size of the workforce in irregular employment [7]. Moody notes that employment at temp agencies fell from 2.6 million in 2006 to a mere 1.8 million in 2008 [8]. The 2006 figure represented an all-time high out of a workforce of nearly one hundred million people [9]. Similarly, the number of independent contractors fell by 1.5 million from 2008 to 2015 [10]. Clearly, the numbers of involuntary part time workers jumped from 1.6 million to 2.3 million following the growth of unemployment in the wake of the crisis [11]. Overall, however, there has not been a substantial amount of growth in the precariat. It seems odd, in light of this, to claim that it is now the motive force for radical change in society.

This is especially strange given that we have not seen a significant change in the length of job tenure, or the length of time workers stay with an employer. In fact, BLS data shows that the median years of job tenure has increased for almost all workers. Average job tenure for all workers over the age of sixteen, for instance, adjusted for business cycles, has grown from 3.5 years in 1993 to 4.6 years in 2015 [12]. Kevin Dugan, in his book The New Capitalism?, has found similar statistics for workers across the European Union [13]. In other words, workers are staying with the same employer longer, rather than becoming more precarious. This means that workers remain connected to one another. There is still a material basis for them to organize and fight for their interests as a class. To quote Moody, “The large majority of workers, about 84%, are still in traditional employment arrangements. Though these, like the precarious workers, have seen their conditions change significantly for the worse” [14] Not only are workers able to wage long-term struggles at the point of production, they have a material reason to do so. As such, we should not be so quick to abandon Marxist ideas about the importance of class struggle.

Doogan spends a great deal of time in the book presenting statistical evidence showing that casualization and the growth of part-time employment has not been the norm over the past forty years. He notes that part-time employment has never surpassed roughly 5 percent of the US workforce [15]. For OECD countries as a whole, the rate of temporary employment is approximately 12 percent, a modest increase from just over 10 percent in 1985 [16]. Doogan notes that most of the available figures precede the onset of the latest global crisis. We can assume that rates have increased in recent years, but he argues that there is little statistical evidence that there has been a quantifiable transformation of the labor market towards casualization in the past forty years [17].

Guy Standing is the writer most identified within the English-speaking world with popularizing the concept of the precariat. In his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, he lays out a popular overview of his more academic research into the impact of neoliberalism on labor relations and the emergence of what he sees as a new rising class.

Standing begins with the far-reaching changes to the global system of capitalist production that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism. Driven by the desire to open up the international circuits of production, trade, and investment, these neoliberals “disliked the state, which they equated with centralized government, with its planning and regulatory apparatus. They saw the world as an increasingly open place, where investment, employment and income would flow to where conditions were most welcoming” [18].

As production became “de-territorialized,” Standing argues, so too did notions of stable, long-term employment. Stable jobs were replaced with offshoring, temporary contracts, casual labor, and peripheral and informal economies. What remains is not the traditional standoff between capital and class-conscious industrial workers that Marx described, but a fluid, free-floating group whose relationship to production is tenuous at best and who lack a sense of clear class identification [19].

This fluidity makes it difficult to get a handle on exactly who is being described as the precariat. It is not, Standing admits, a homogenous group. It cannot be defined by its particular relationship to work, by a particular political outlook or aims:

The teenager who flits in and out of the internet café while surviving on fleeting jobs is not the same as the migrant who uses his wits to survive, networking feverishly while worrying about the police. Neither is similar to the single mother fretting where the money for next week’s food bills is coming from or the man in his 60s who takes casual jobs to help pay medical bills [20].

Standing thus defines the precariat broadly as those who face a number of related and often overlapping insecurities: “labour market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security” [21].

But even so, it is sometimes hard to understand the limitations of this definition. In his section on defining the precariat, Standing examines the student labor force, temporary and contract workers, interns, elderly workers, migrants and immigrant workforces, women, incarcerated prisoners and those released from prison who continue to live under the shadow of past convictions, and even the millions of Chinese migrant workers, Standing admits, “who might fit the image of an industrial proletariat, but . . . are treated as a disposable itinerant labour force” [22].

This difficulty in defining a common condition or outlook for the precariat means that for much of the book, the precariat is defined much more by what it is not, than by what it is—repeatedly counterposing it to Standing’s image of an industrial proletariat defined by stability and security:

The precariat was not part of the “working class” or the “proletariat.” The latter terms suggest a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with [23].

Whether or not we regard the precariat as a distinct class depends on how we define the “proletariat.” The image above represents a very narrow picture of the working class. To the extent that it depicts the reality of working-class life, it is certainly limited to a particular strata of workers in the industrialized economies in the last generation, who as the result of the labor struggles of previous generations were able to attain a degree of security and advancement during the postwar boom [24]. Prior to the 1940s, few of the attributes listed above would apply to workers even in the industrialized world [25]. And even today, in much of the Global South, few would apply to even the most stereotypical image of the proletariat as industrial, blue-collar workers [26].

If our understanding of the working class is determined not by social status and class identification or the stability of employment, but rather by its relation to capital and the capitalist production process, we can view a working class that is constantly evolving, that includes large sections of the so-called white-collar workforce, sections of the urban poor, and informal sectors. The increase in precariousness then is perhaps better understood not as the replacement of one class by another, but as a concerted assault on the part of capital to roll back the gains that a particular generation of workers was able to attain to reestablish a more unequal balance of class forces that favors capital over labor.

Contrary to what Standing and others assert, the supposed increasing precarity of work is not a new phenomenon. Historically, precarity has been the norm for the bulk of workers in the industrialized capitalist world. Most workers in Japan, the US, Canada, and capitalist Europe have suffered from insecure employment, fluctuating hours, and so on. There is basis for this in Marxist theory. As Marx himself argued in Capital over 150 years ago, “Capitalist accumulation, with its relentless mechanization of production, concentration and centralization of capital, constantly produces a reserve army of labor, of unemployed, underemployed, and precariously employed workers” [27] The idea of the precariat does not necessitate a break from Marxism. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains relevant, and discarding it can only hinder the socialist movement.

Frederick Engels introduced the idea of precariousness in his treatment of the industrial reserve army in The Condition of the Working Class in England [28].  Marx and Engels employed it in this same context in The Communist Manifesto, [29] and it later became a key element in Marx’s analysis of the industrial reserve army in volume I of Capital. Early Marxist theorists, notably William Morris, extended this analysis, explicitly rooting much of their critique of capital in the concept of “precariousness” [30]. The notion of precariousness has always been prominent in, and integral to, the Marxist critique of capitalism.

Contrary to the theories of a distinct precariat class, with interests opposed to the stably-employed working class, the so-called privileges of the stably-employed workers do not come at the expense of the precarious. Instead, the growth of a growing layer of part-time workers with little job security sharpens competition among workers. This drives down wages and conditions for all workers.

The reason the notion of the precariat as a new class has risen to such prominence today is because the successful capitalist defensive against global labor that began in the late 1970s, what we now call neoliberalism, has made all workers more precarious. The weakening of unions and the dismantling of state regulation of the labor market has made employment more insecure for everyone. The consequences of unemployment are now more severe across the capitalist world, owing to the neoliberal assault on welfare benefits and other aspects of the social safety net. Put simply, neoliberalism has returned the working class to its natural position under capitalism: precarity. The concept of the precariat as a class misses this, ignoring the fact that people who fall under this umbrella relate to the means of production in the same way that proletarians do. They work in manufacturing, transportation, and service. In fact, many workers in transportation and parts manufacturing appear in the numbers of the precariously employed [31]. Many workers who drive trucks to ports are considered self-employed, and many of those who perform labor-intensive parts manufacturing occupy long-term part time jobs. These people could be considered members of the precariat. However, they are not fundamentally different from the rest of the working class. They are vital to the process of production and thus the survival of capital. They are facing an assault on their wages and conditions just like stable workers. This is why the notion of the precariat as a separate class is spurious.

It is important to situate the concept of the precariat in the present context. Standing argues that changes in the relations of production have given rise to the precariat. One of the major changes is the advent of automation and mechanization. Marx himself argued that the development of machinery would make workers more precarious. This is a consequence of capitalist production, rather than a break from it. Marx writes that the development of machinery “make the wages of the workers ever fluctuating, and cause their livelihood to become “more precarious” [32]. Marx identified the tendency for job insecurity and casualization, denoting them as intrinsic to proletarian existence. In a way, Standing’s concept of the precariat is not a repudiation of Marxism, but a reaffirmation of it.

Both precarious workers and those who are organized are compelled to struggle for better conditions and pay. Both groups become conscious of their hardships in struggle. This is the foundation that Lenin argued we should build on as revolutionaries. Because this foundation remains, the precariat should not be considered separate from the working class, but rather a part of it. My argument here, like it was in the three previous posts, is that we should assert the unity of the entire proletariat. Only when we do this can we hope to win the fight for a better world.

  1. Standing, Guy. The precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
  2. “Job Loss and the Decline in Job Security in the United States,” in Labor in the New Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), eds. Katharine G. Abraham, James R. Spletzer, and Michael Harper, 223-62
  3. Ibid.
  4. See Anwar Shaikh and E. Ahmet Tonak (1996) Measuring the Wealth of Nations: The Political Economy of National Accounts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 29-32.
  5. Sonia McKay, Steve Jefferys, Anna Paraksevopoulou, and Janoj Keles (2011) Study on Precarious Work and Social Rights (London: London Metropolitan University), 17-18.
  6. Fox, “Self-Employed,” 8; US Census Bureau (1982-83) Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 384.
  7. Steven F. Hipple (2010) “Self-employment in the United States” Monthly Labor Review, September, 2010, 17, 19; BLS (2016) All industries Self-employed, unincorporated.
  8. 6 Jonathan V. Hall and Alen B. Krueger (2015) “An Analysis of the Labor Market for Uber’s Driver-Partners in the United States “(Uber Technologies).
  9. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Heidi Sheirholz (2009) The State of Working America, 2008/2009 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 210, 257.
  10. BLS (1997) ‘Employee Tenure in the Mid-1990s’ USDL 97-25, January 30, 1997, Table 1; BLS (2010) ‘Employee Tenure in 2010’ USDL-10-1278, September 14, 2010, Table 1; BLS (2014) ‘Employee Tenure 2014’ USDL-14-1714, September 18, 2014, Table 1.
  11. 9 US Census Bureau (1982/83) Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office),21, 388-390; US Census Bureau, 2011: 14, 393-396.
  12. 1LCLAA (2015) Latino Workers and Unions: A Strategic Perspective for America’s Progress (Washington DC: Labor Council for Latin American Advancement), 10; Nicole Woo, Cherrie Bucknor, and John Schmitt (2015) Asian American and Pacific Islander Workers’ Union Membership (Washington DC: Cetner for Economic and Policy Research), 1.2
  13. UNCTAD (2013) World Investment Report 2103 (Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), 130-131.
  14. BEA (2015) Interactive tables for “Gross Output by Industry” and “Intermediate Input by Industry,” November 5, 2015; Council of Economic Advisers (2011) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 250-252.
  15. Council of Economic Advisers (2011) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 188; Council of Economic Advisers (2016) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 402.
  16. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo (2014) Women,Working Families, and Unions (Washington DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research), 3; US Census Bureau (2011), Statistical Abstract, 410-411.
  17. Standing, Op. Cit.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Breman, J. C. “A Bogus Concept?[Review of: G. Standing (2011) The precariat: the new dangerous class].” New left review 84 (2013).
  25. Ibid.
  26. Marx, Karl, et al. Capital, volume one: A critique of political economy. Courier Corporation, 2012.
  27. Engels, Freidrich. “The condition of the working class in England.” The Sociology and Politics of Health (1969): 8.
  28. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  29. Richard Seymour, “We Are All Precarious—On the Concept of the ‘Precariat’ and Its Misuses,” New Left Project, February 10, 2012, http://www.newleftproject.org.
  30. Transport Topics (2014) “Top 100” (Transport Topics Publishing Group), 4-22; USA Census (2011), 409.
  31. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol 6, pp. 491-2.

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