Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
In a new book, Guy Standing develops a theme that has underpinned his advocacy of a basic income since the 1980s. There are many rationales for supporting a basic income, but effective political pressure may emanate from the emergence of a new mass class, the precariat. It is a dangerous class; not yet a class-for-itself, in the Marxian sense, but a class-in-the-making, in which distinctive groups are torn politically in different directions.
Those in the precariat – and the millions who fear they could fall into it – are characterised by having insecure lives, in and out of short-term jobs, with volatile and generally low incomes. What stands out most is that they lack a secure occupational identity, and have no sense of control over their work, labour, recreation and leisure.
The relevance for basic income arises because the precariat’s economic insecurity is chronic and is mostly uninsurable. In a globalising market economy, the precariat faces systemic uncertainty and exposure to threatening hazards and shocks. Social insurance cannot provide basic economic security in such circumstances. But in any case governments have increasingly resorted to means-tested social assistance, ‘targeting’ on the so-called deserving poor. Even with tax credits, this has generated well-known poverty and unemployment traps, whereby those in the lower echelons of labour markets face marginal tax rates close to 100%, prompting moral and immoral hazards.
It has also led to a proliferation of precarity traps, whereby anybody losing a job or income must enter a debilitating process of trying to obtain state benefits, during which time they have no income and build up debts. If they do obtain benefits, they will be disinclined to take a temporary low-wage job in case they have to start the process all over again.
The precariat consists of three groups. First, there are progressives, mostly consisting of frustrated educated youth, intellectuals and others who resent the insecurity and lack of occupational opportunity. They embrace various non-conformist lifestyles. It is this group that has been filling the squares in protests against the austerity programmes that have followed the financial crisis. They reject old-style social democracy while looking for a redistributive strategy that would give people like themselves basic economic security in which to build their lives. They openly support a basic income, even if some have to be alerted to the feasibility of it.
The second group in the precariat is anomic, politically detached, including many morally defeated people, as well as migrants keen not to be noticed by the authorities, many of the so-called disabled and many who have been criminalised. This group could be mobilised to support a basic income, but would have to feel they were moving from a denizen status to citizens in order to feel it would be something for them.
The third component of the precariat is what makes it the dangerous class. It consists mainly of those falling from the old working class and the partially educated condemned to a life of insecurity. This disparate group listens to populist politicians offering variants of neo-fascism, a far-right agenda depicting government as against them and strangers, notably migrants, Muslims and ‘liberals’, as the cause of their insecurity.
The far-right is gaining ground in country after country, often at the expense of social democrats. The trouble is that the latter has not offered the precariat an attractive vision, and are paying the political price, deservedly. But here, paradoxically, there is reason for some optimism. Increasingly, we may see that those wishing to be centre-left politicians will have no alternative to offer other than a universal basic income, if they want to foster an economically secure citizenry and to reduce inequality.
That is why the book ends on a mildly optimistic note. However, it goes one stage further, which may be controversial for basic income supporters. The argument is that the commodification of politics combined with the growth of an increasingly angry and active precariat have accentuated the thinning of democracy and the erosion of deliberative democracy. In that context, it advocates a basic income in which every adult on establishing eligibility makes a moral commitment in writing – not a legally binding one – to vote in general elections and to attend at least one local public political meeting each year.
Strengthening deliberative democracy will surely be a vital part of a new progressive politics in which the precariat would feel an integral part of society. That is consistent with the values that have guided BIEN for the past twenty-five years.
Guy Standing, The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class, has just been published by Bloomsbury, and can be ordered online.