The Precariat

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Guy Standing

The government's £81 billion cuts have raised the stakes in the war against the welfare state. Can the organised working class, who fought for and still support the welfare state, save it?

For Guy Standing in his new book, The Precariat, this is not even the right question. For him the key division in the world is no longer that between the ruling class and the working class. A new class structure has emerged: an elite, a salariat, a weak working class and a dangerous new social class - the precariat.

The precariat is defined by what it lacks: job security, adequate incomes, protection against illness, and representation. Amorphous and angry, possibly comprising 25 percent of the UK working population, he says the precariat could explode in any number of directions, including fascism.

Much is interesting in this book: in its consideration of the changing worldwide workforce; in outlining the dehumanising aspects of modern capitalism and the impact of the 2008 crash. However, in the final analysis, what Standing provides is a lot more than a series of acute observations but a lot less than a coherent set of theoretical discoveries.

As late as 2000 as many as 51 percent of men and 38 percent of women in the UK still belonged to Standing's so-called vanished manual working class; only 5 percent of UK workers were on temporary contracts. The employers' offensives, stagnant wages and welfare attacks have impoverished that part of the working class that is as old as capitalism itself, the "informal sector".

Standing's description of the precariat sounds very much like Engels's description of 1880s dock workers as the "most demoralised elements". Engels described how strike action by these dock workers terrified the powerful globalised dock companies in 1889. Standing seems to miss how the capitalism of today, after 30 years of neoliberalism, resembles the world described by Engels and his erstwhile partner.

If taken seriously by militants Standing's argument would stop a struggle before it started. He says, for example, "To imagine sustained...resistance" against globalisation "is fanciful." Standing's precariat is, in truth, the working class by another name. Its organisations can still mobilise 500,000 people onto the streets of London.
From China to Egypt to Spain we see that this class, though announced dead in the 1880s, the 1950s, the 1980s, and now in 2011, just won't lie down.

Only ideas that throw divisions back in the face of those who close hospitals, sack workers or declare wars can help the reshaped working class win the battle for the welfare state, and much more.