Thursday, March 15, 2012

Standing replies on the 'precariat'

Following my recent article for the New Left Project on the 'precariat' and its misuses, which used Guy Standing's book on the subject as a foil for its polemical thrust, Standing has taken up a right to reply on the website.  In his piece, he attempts to defend not just the concept of the 'precariat' as he has defined it, but more importantly the body of research behind it and the strategic orientations arising from it.  I will be frank: I don't think the reply does Standing any good at all.  I hear his call for cool, dispassionate but thorough engagement, but must bluntly say that he has singularly failed to display this in his retort. Perhaps understandably, given the caustic tone of some of my comments, he is so angered by what I have said that he spends a great deal of time contriving 'gotchas', attempting to catch me in a gauche error or inconsistency.  This undermines the substantive case which he tries to make, which in itself would merit serious reflection.  So, I will begin by disposing of the 'gotchas', answer Standing's claim that I have misrepresented some crucial aspects of his work, and then try to say something useful about his broader theoretical and empirical arguments.

To begin with, Standing asserts that I attribute to him ideas that he doesn't hold. So, for example, he says that I misattribute to him the term "class-in-becoming". I don't specifically attribute that term to him, but even if I did, he does use the term "class-in-the-making", which is so close to identical as to make the objection petty. The same applies to Standing's complaint that he does not use the term 'proficiat': he uses the almost identical term 'proficians' to describe a class of professionals and technicians. In a similar gesture, Standing cheaply suggests that he could not have rejected Blue Labour when the book went to press. But he knows perfectly well that the reference is not to the book, but to his article in The Guardian dealing precisely with the subject of Blue Labour.

Standing goes on to represent my own position as unequivocally hostile to the notion of the 'precariat'. So, for example, he says that I reject the notion of the precariat as a "totally unsatisfactory concept", but then contradict myself by deploying the same concept. In fact, I say that "at present" it is unsatisfactory. I do not say that I "straightforwardly reject the term". I impute this position to many working within a marxist purview, and moreover go on to explicitly oppose such outright rejection. I say that the critics are wrong, that the concept "cannot be dismissed", that a "defensive cleaving to orthodoxy" will not suffice. The whole thrust of the article is an attempt to dis-embed the concept from its current articulation, which I think is problematic, and conceive of it in a wholly different light. This isn't so much "a matter of logic" as one of satisfactory engagement with opposing arguments. Standing alleges that in regard to the impact of neoliberalism on labour markets, I say that "nothing is 'new'". In fact, I say no such thing. Having identified several novel effects of neoliberalism, I say: "It is not the case that ‘precarity’ is a nonsense, therefore, nor even that there is nothing inherently novel about its present forms. Precarity is built into neoliberal capitalism". Further, "it would be mistaken to simply deny the changes that are taking place". And so on. Similarly, Standing attributes to me the claim that "job stability has not declined". In fact, he has taken this statement from a summary of a particular position which I explicitly reject. And when he complains that I attribute to him the claim that the precariat is analogous to the old lumpenproletariat, he misses the fact that a) I don't attribute an explicit claim of this kind to him, b) I am referring solely to its prognosticated role as a "monster", a "dangerous class", apt to play a leading role in a future fascist revival.

Matters are not improved much when Standing tries to find fault with my marxism. Thus, he finds an 'irony' in the fact that I cite Poulantzas, and that Poulantzas was (for a period) a 'disciple' of Althusser, who in turn was subject to a 'withering' (in fact, consistently bitter and ill-informed) critique by E P Thompson. All that Standing has done here is indicate that he is aware of some of the general intellectual context of these theoretical arguments, which is good for him but doesn't advance the debate one iota. Similarly, he maintains that I use "un-Marxian notions", and that my invocation of the "professional middle class" implies that there must be four classes in my schema. In fact, I am simply distinguishing between strata within the middle class: if the traditional petty bourgeoisie tended to comprise lone traders, small businessmen, artisans, and professionals operating independently, those I am describing as members of the "professional middle class" are those professionals who, rather than trading independently, are affiliated to the public sector and large corporations, (tending to comprise part of a global disciplinary apparatus), and thus have different patterns of autonomy and social power. I'm quite happy for this distinction to be reproved and argued with, whether on marxist or other grounds, but it would be better if this were done on the basis of what it is, rather than what it is not.

One could go on in this vein, but what is motivating this attempted debunking on Standing's part is disgruntlement with the way his work has been treated. He feels he has been misrepresented and, at that, in the most uncharitable ways. What he is most offended by is the sarcastic suggestion that he favours "the full commodification of pregnant women". Very well. It was a deliberately provocative claim, and only half in jest. But his response is not as reassuring as he perhaps imagines it to be. He says that the precariat should have the same entitlements as everyone else. So far, so unobjectionable. But he doesn't mention in his reply that in the book he actually means by this that maternity benefit should be abolished rather than reformed in a progressive direction, because such non-monetary benefits constitute a partial de-commodification of labour. The distinction he makes between supporting the full commodification of "labour" as an activity and the de-commodification of people as "labour power" will not hold. What Standing favours is the full marketization and commodification of jobs, and the job transaction involves the sale not of labour, but of labour power (ie, the ability to work for a period of so many hours in a week). Standing is quite explicit in that the commodification he favours involves abolishing non-monetary benefits such as maternity leave in favour of payment per hours. In short, the full commodification of pregnant women as labour power is, whether or not he likes the implication, exactly what he argues in favour of. And to this extent, despite the centre-left thrust of his politics and his support for mildly redistributive policies such as a modest minimum income guarantee, his attack on maternity benefits and support for a "free market" in labour is indistinguishable from the position of the Tory think-tank, the Social Market Foundation.

Standing also rejects the idea that he takes for granted Gorz's claim that the working class is finished. In fact, he says:

"The ‘working class’, ‘workers’ and the ‘proletariat’ were terms embedded in our culture for several centuries. People could describe themselves in class terms, and others would recognise them in those terms, by the way they dressed, spoke and conducted themselves. Today they are little more than evocative labels. Gorz (1982) wrote of ‘the end of the working class’ long ago."

Importantly, he leaves the argument at that, offering no reasons to think of it as correct - in other words, he takes Gorz's assessment 'for granted'.

On the substantive question of who the 'precariat' is, and how it is defined, Standing objects to my saying that his conception of the precariat involves a definition that is purely negative and critical in content. He argues that in saying so, I omit the radical, transformative aspects of precarious labour described in the book. This is a non-sequitur. I am not attributing to Standing a purely negative approach to precarious labour in a normative sense. I am saying that his definition contains no positive content, that the precariat is defined more by "what it is not than what it positively is". Nor will suffice to claim that Marx defined the proletariat in purely negative, critical terms. The 'two freedoms' are positive attributes: they do not merely distinguish the proletariat from the feudal peasantry, but stipulate specific relations between workers, the means of production, and other classes. The proletarian is free to sell her labour power to whomsoever she chooses, or not, and free from the means to do anything but sell her labour power. That is the meaning of the double freedom of the proletariat.

Yet, Standing insists that the precariat in his conception is also defined positively by reference to: "‘status dissonance’ ... “status frustration”, combined with unstable labour, systematic insecurity, a unique structure of social income ... and a high degree of work-for-labour". I take the point that he considers these to be positive attributes of the precariat, yet I find this rather thin as a definition. These are arguably effects of precarious labour, but they cannot form the basis for a positive definition of a class, since they say nothing about what makes the class what it is, what constitutes its relation to other classes, the principle of its reproduction as a class, and so on.

This is related to another point, where Standing, opposing "fanciful images of a united working class", insists that objective factors divide the old proletariat into new classes. In fact, this elides an important distinction. The unity of a class is something that is actively constructed and achieved at the level of politics, and cannot be assumed. The fact that classes are divided by numerous factors (fractionalised, segmented, and atomised), and at various levels of experience, is something that a class-based political strategy, including of the kind that Standing advocates, would certainly have to be aware of and counteract. But to argue that these divisions are such that the working class is split into new classes requires that one: a) clearly stipulate what defines the working class as such - ie what constitutes its relation to other classes, what is the principle of its formation as a class, by what means is it reproduced, etc.; and b) therefore explains what new principles of formation, reproduction and relationship to other classes defines the supposed new classes emerging from the division. Standing has at no point offered a satisfactory definition of the working class, resorting instead to a straw man 'labourism'. On this point, Standing also feels he has been misrepresented, stating that his critique of twentieth century 'labourism' is distinct from an attack on "traditional Labourism", and that by the former he means "the systematic equating of labour with work". In fact, he routinely uses the term 'labourism' to refer to something more than that: notably, the social democratic welfare state, full employment, corporatist bargaining, and so on. In the UK context, this just is "traditional Labourism", and it is this historical experience that he uses as his model of the working class against which to differentiate the 'precariat'. His definition of the precariat thus says nothing about what makes it a class. The factors of division that he adduces here (job security and occupational regulation) are not clearly explained as principles of class division. They could just as well work as axes of differentiation within classes.

Raising what would appear to be a fundamental problem of misinterpretation, Standing suggests that I miss the prognosis underpinning his book, making no distinction between labour and work, and thus not grasping the emancipatory potential in the recognition that labour is inherently 'alienating' and at odds with the humanistic conception of work. Here I will make two points. First, I didn't comment on this emancipatory ideology largely because it is secondary to the definition of the precariat as a class distinct from the proletariat. My argument, though it uses him as a foil, should not be confused with a review of Standing's book. Second, I have come to reject the problematic of alienation, as one founded on the superstition of 'human nature' upon which all humanisms must ultimately be based. I don't expect Standing to agree, but the point is that our terms are sufficiently incommensurate that any comment I would have made in this regard would have at least doubled the length of the original text and any ensuing exchange.

Methods and data
That Standing is a sociologist with a body of serious work and a research project extending back over decades is not in doubt. I say this because Standing has taken the trouble to point it out when it genuinely wasn't in question. So, one anticipates that when he raises methodological and statistical issues, he will do so in a rigorous and careful way. I will suggest that in this polemical context, he hasn't been as careful as he might have otherwise been.

First of all, he takes issue with my citation of the author Kevin Doogan. He is quite wrong to claim that I cite Doogan "without citing counter-arguments or evidence". In fact, I cite (in the context of the piece), a great deal of empirical data, only some of which is drawn from Doogan's book (other data was taken from the comparative sociologist Goran Therborn). Further, I do not simply second Doogan's conclusions. Doogan is cited as a theoretically and empirically robust critic of notions of precarious labour, but I specifically distance myself from the simple categorical rejection of such notions. Nor do I have any inherent objection to caveats regarding Doogan's use of statistics to make a case which, as I have made clear, I think tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater. However, Standing's rebuttal is problematic.

He complains that the ten tables supplied in chapter seven of Doogan's book specifically dealing with occupational change in OECD countries only cover a period up to 2002, suggesting that the data therefore doesn't cover a whole decade of change since then. It is true that "these were the only tables he provided" but these tables do not comprise the only relevant statistical data provided, much of which covers a period well after 2002. Nor is chapter seven the only relevant chapter of the book (most of my citations were drawn from chapter six, in which Standing's conception of employment security is briefly discussed). Not only that, but the period between 1983/1991 and 2002 covered by the tabulated data is relevant because it covers approx ten to twenty years during which neoliberalism was exerting its effects.

Nonetheless, should we be wary of this data? It doesn't show an average decline in the rates of long-term employment, but Standing argues that there is a factor concealed in all this, which is the ageing of the workforce during the period covered. This should have resulted in an increase in long-term employment, all other things being equal. Yet if the increase is only modest, then there must be a counter-acting trend away from long-term employment. This seems reasonable on the face of it, but there are a number of important factors that he doesn't mention. The first is that the periods covered were, on average, periods of employment expansion. This tends to means that the rate at which people are employed long-term relative to the total workforce will decline, as more new workers are incorporated into full-time work. I am not competent to say for certain which factor, ageing or employment expansion, exerts greater effects. I can only say that, based on the OECD data that Doogan supplies, the ageing of the workforce does not consistently result in an increase in the rate of long-term employment. Changing retirement patterns means that long-term employment declined among men aged 55-64. On balance, pending further research, I tend to think that if there is any underlying trend away from long-term employment, it is a very modest one counteracted by trends in the opposite direction.

The second issue unmentioned by Standing is that trends in long-term employment vary considerably. Although there is an average tendency for long-term employment to increase, it varies by demographic and economic sector. For those aged 25-34, the rate is declining significantly; for women 35 and over, it is increasing dramatically. Any decline in the rate of long term employment is, meanwhile, detectible mainly in specific economic sectors such as agriculture. To this extent, the case presented by Doogan, not satisfactorily rebutted by Standing, is that industrial re-structuring under neoliberalism is creating highly uneven effects which depend on sector and demographic, and thus don't conform to the typical portrait of a secular shift toward short-term and temporary labour.

Similarly, Standing asserts that the low rate of rate of temporary employment in the UK cannot be taken as a typical example of the scale of temporary labour and explains that he gives reasons in his book. It is correct that he repudiates the statistics for the UK and US due to their putatively restrictive definition of what constitutes temporary labour. Granting this point, it doesn't seem to work as an adequate rebuttal. The empirical data I raised was for the whole of the OECD, representing the wide variations within it. The figure for the UK was mentioned, literally, parenthetically. The point being made here was that "the changes are neither as epochal as some theorists would have it, nor are they uniform in their conditions or effects". I am not persuaded that Standing has made the case that there is an overall trend in capitalism toward habituating the majority to precarious labour.

I stand by my argument, in the absence of a persuasive case against it, that the 'precariat' is not a class. The arguments in favour of the precariat's existence as a class are at present too impressionistic to be convincing, and the data doesn't support the idea that its supposed characteristics are distributed in a manner indicative of class formation. I also cleave strongly to the point that precarity in employment is not distributed in the way that would be anticipated by post-industrial theories such as that advanced in Standing's book. Most of it is concentrated outside of the core capitalist economies, where there continues to be a large peasantry and where industrialization is in a relatively early phase - India, China, sub-Saharan Africa. This is no doubt in part because the global re-structuring of capitalist relations in the neoliberal period has involved actively displacing precarity to the margins. The extent to which this can continue to take place is limited by the severity of the global crisis. But this still doesn't support the claim that precarious labour is becoming the situation of the majority of workers in the core capitalist economies, much less that those in precarious labour are forming a class.

There is one final issue I would raise, which appears in Loic Wacquant's discussion of the 'precariat'. For Wacquant, the 'precariat' comprises the "insecure fringes of the new proletariat" rather than a class in itself. Nonetheless, since Standing views the precariat as a 'class-in-the-making', which he calls on to become a 'class-for-itself', Wacquant's observation on this prospect is relevant. He says: "the precariat is a sort of still-born group, whose gestation is necessarily unfinished since one can work to consolidate it only to help its members flee from it, either by finding a haven in stable wage labour or by escaping from the world of work altogether (through social redistribution and state protection). Contrary to the proletariat in the Marxist vision of history, which is called upon to abolish itself in the long term by uniting and universalizing itself, the precariat can only make itself to immediately unmake itself." And there lies the rub. If one were to truly address the specific problems associated with precarious labour, the distinct social characteristics that Standing says make the 'precariat' a class would mainly disappear. Unlike other classes, which are reproduced through class struggle (unless and until classes as such are abolished), the precariat would abolish itself as soon as it struggled as a class.