The word precarity is becoming increasingly fashionable as a way of describing the effects of neoliberal policy. The concept expresses the sense that the state has broken its ideological promise (what Polanyi posited in The Great Transformation) to ameliorate the misery capitalism necessarily generates. The state tries to offload as much of the responsibility for maintaining a minimum standard of well-being for its citizens, while corporations simultaneously shift as much of the economic risk to their workers, offering little in the way of benefits, pensions, and security. Individuals are expected to bear the burdens imposed by recession and fend for themselves as much as possible in the economy, even as the destructured work sphere that results from post-Fordist reforms demands an intensified cooperation among workers. The stress of having to constantly cooperate and compete with co-workers at the same time is just another of the emotional burdens that constitute precarity.
Precarity applies to a specific subjectivity, the lived experience of ambient insecurity. Though the word precarity is only necessary because of the political urgency of describing this widespread insecurity, the experience of precarity is not inherently or completely negative. The “positive” components of precarity — the sense that it provides for the freedom of flexibility, rewards certain kinds of creativity and opportunism, promotes a kind of absolute individualism that can be taken for dignity, and accommodates or even requires a degree of social and geographic mobility — are part of what has allowed for neoliberalism’s implementation. Precarity is another way of describing why many Americans seem to instinctively reject the idea of labor unions even as the decline of unionism has given bosses more power.
I understand why some leftists have problems with precarity as a concept (and more particularly, its companion, the precariat, the alleged emerging class composed of people experiencing precarity) even beyond the sense that it is becoming an empty buzzword, a trendy thing to say to forestall rather than develop analyses. There is nothing particularly new about precarity in general, though the neologism seems to suggest as much. Work has always been to some degree insecure; since capitalism is built on the profit that can be extracted from forcing people to sell their labor power to survive, a certain amount of survival panic is always built in. Using precarity as a critical concept runs the risk of romanticizing the supposed security of high Fordist economic conditions circa the 1950s and implicitly championing dirigiste corporatism. And as the term gets adopted by people like me to talk about the everyday realities people I know are familiar with, its valence tends to shift away from Foxconn employees and stateless migrants toward self-employed Freelancers Union types, depleting its critical edge and making it a #firstworldproblem unlikely to lead to meaningful political organization. It’s very easy for a concern for security to become a concern for preferential treatment and rentism (See the end of this Peter Frase post.) Bhaskar Sunkara argues here that “it might be helpful to consider the ways in which the current situation resembles a return to pre-Fordism” before claiming that any term that lumps creative class types with migrant workers is “absurd.”
In his recent critique of the precariat concept at New Left Project, Richard Seymour tries to parse out what is new about today’s precarity (high unemployment, globalization, increased numbers of migrant workers), before attempting to dismantle the possibility of the precariat automatically making up a class, since class composition, he argues, has “nothing whatever to do with the ‘subjective’ position of its members.” Experiencing precarity doesn’t affect the underlying social relations of production that make possible “real” class relations nor substitute for the political work required to sustain a unity of class interests. He concludes, somewhat nebulously, that “precarity cannot be the basis for political strategy in itself, but it can be part of a system of articulations unifying those affected by it in a struggle against the power bloc … The precariat is an interpellation that can help in forming a new, radical majoritarian politics with an anticapitalist core.” Just don’t call it a class, okay?
But how helpful is it, really, for people to self-identify as “precarious”? Is it any more useful than claiming to be one of the 99%? Who steers the “radical majoritarian politics” that ideally results, if such steering is even possible? I wonder whether the affective experience of precarity is at all conducive to political action no matter what you call it. It seems just as likely to make people depressed and/or apathetic than to interpellate them into becoming Occupiers, let alone politically effective ones. With that skepticism as a backdrop, I attended a panel at the Affect Factory conference over the weekend at NYU: “The Risk of Belonging: Strategies of Affective Resistance,” in which Randy Martin responded to papers by Gabriella Alberti (Queen Mary, University of London), Jasmine Rault (New School), Karen Gregory (CUNY), and Shaka McGlotten (SUNY-Purchase).
I hadn’t heard of “affective resistance” before, though judging by this reading list, it has a pretty intense pedigree (like the term precarity itself). What I took away from the panel was that the concept can be hard to distinguish from the consolations of precarity mentioned above, or at the other end of the continuum, from the innate human determination to survive adversity. Rault’s paper discussed the possibility of “precarious optimism,” the joy and solidarity born in resistance and within repressive orders. (Though maybe I misunderstood — is the optimism what is precarious?) Alberti placed the ad hoc networks among migrant hospitality workers partially in this light, though it struck me that this network-forming work was merely more uncompensated labor on which their employers relied. Yes, these friendships make survival possible and bring pleasure, but that’s not really reason for anything like optimism. This just allows for the reproduction of existing labor conditions.
The optimism is meant to come from the opening up of a possibility for a different mode of subjectivity. The stubbornness of resistance can becomes constitutive of an identity outside of neoliberalist rationalization, which inculcates us with an individualistic and ultimately antihuman ideology of convenience that prompts us to neglect our inescapable, Levinas-ian “infinite responsibility to the other.” Presumably we can never be truly happy on a personal level as long as we are operating as de facto deputies of neoliberalism, but it is impossible for us to will an alternative subjectivity to what it engenders, minus the crucible of precarity. Via precarity we can answer the “call to life.” When I first read Polanyi, I had a related idea that individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) is a sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender other values. Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation that the labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies (proto precarity?) and that to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,
To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.
In my old post, I likened this to Sailor’s fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart — “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” The jacket is emblematic of our need to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more organic value system that would root our self-worth in collective identity — in a community’s mode of functioning (rather than dissipating our affinities in networks).
I thought then that we would experience any attempt to carry us back to the values pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, despite the ways in which our inner yearning for collectivity causes us to pervert the “freedom” the market culture supplies us with into wildly bizarre forms of acting out. (I was thinking of this.)
Gregory’s paper offered a different view on the the compensatory ruses people devise to deal with their precarious condition. Drawing on her research into the world of tarot-card-reading, petty-entrepreneurial psychics, Gregory suggested that an ersatz spirituality and an improvised narrative arc of personal spiritual development can mitigate the dislocation and desperation of precarity. To fuel the development of this arc, Gregory argues that social media come in handy as a “socket” to plug into and extract energy for this process and also give it an outlet, thus providing social-media services with content. But rather than spawn “precarious optimism,” social media in this context yield another iteration of neoliberalist economic competition, only now one’s life story (or identity in process) competes for attention among a cacophony of other ones. The precarity-driven identity work is subsumed into an unregulated online labor market. The positive affect that results from successful self-branding sugarcoats the misery of having to market-test an identity in the first place.
I’m highly sympathetic to that view, as that fits a little better with my old analysis: precarity creates a self-sustaining ideological energy that hinges on our preoccupation with our individuality, our unique destiny, our special distinctive abilities. Social media provide the institutional infrastructure for that ideological energy, foreclosing on the possibility that the alternative subjectivities can ever thrive.