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<nettime> Whose Precarity Is It Anyways?
stevphen shukaitis on Mon, 29 Jan 2007 18:30:11 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Whose Precarity Is It Anyways?

Whose Precarity Is It Anyway?
Stevphen Shukaitis

 From Fifth Estate (http://www.fifthestate.org/) #374

?The condition today described as that of the precarious worker is
perhaps the fundamental reality of the proletariat. And the modes of
existence of workers in 1830 are quite close to those of our temporary
workers.? ? Jacques Ranciere, The Nights of Labor: The Workers? Dream
in Nineteenth Century France

During recent years in Italy and Spain, but now having spread
more broadly, there has emerged a discussion about conditions of
?precarity,? or precarious labor. Describing conditions of unstable,
short term, flexible, and highly exploited labor, these discussions
and the organizing based around them have sought to find new ways
to contest forms of social domination and exploitation found within
neoliberal capitalism. These new conditions make it utterly clear
that not just the usual, but also the more ?radical,? methods of
union organizing and political contestation, are no longer adequate
to current conditions. As ever-increasing populations are involved in
part-time, contract, and temp jobs ? from 16.8% in the US to 46.1%
in the Netherlands ? creating methods of contestation that work from
such positions is increasingly important. But concepts and methods of
organizing inevitably need to be adapted as they move across time,
space, and cultural context. In what ways might various ideas gained
emerging around precarity be useful to radical political organizing in
the US, or more broadly to other locations that do not share the same
cultural and social history where these ideas have emerged?

Although the term precarity had been used previously, its contemporary
usage derives from the efforts of the labor organizing and media
activism collective Chainworkers, a Milan-based group which formed in
1999-2000. Their aim was to find ways to merge together the methods
of IWW-inspired anarcho-syndicalist labor organizing and subvertising
to find ways to contest forms of labor found within post- industrial
capitalism. In conditions where work to a large extent no longer
occurs primarily within centralized locations of productions (such
as factories), but is distributed across much larger geographic
scales. Forms of labor also increasingly differ from the physical
production of goods, rather comprising activities often described as
service sector jobs and involve communication, cultural interaction,
advertising, working with data, and forms of emotional labor (work
involving forms of care or creating a sense of well-being). This
includes anything from airline flight attendants to advertising and
media work, from sales jobs in countless chainstores to the expanding
sector of lower level management.

These discussions are inspired by the legacy of workerist and
autonomous politics in Italy originating from the 1960s and 70s
involving groups such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua and
involving figures like Sergio Bologna, Franco ?Bifo? Berardi,
Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Mario Tronti, and Toni Negri. A key concept
emerging from this milieu is that of class composition, which
stresses how class relations and forms of power are not eternal but
are constantly shifting fields of power that are determined not by
the autonomous force of capital, but rather by capital?s needs to
integrate forms of working class insurgency into its working. The
refusal of work, seen in the US in the figure of the slacker or the
dropout, was seen as a means to withdraw from capitalist relations and
create autonomous forms of community and existence, or what is often
referred to as exodus.

Given the drastic changes occurring within forms of work, it was
necessary to radically update and reformulate labor organizing
tactics to address them. While there have long existed many
forms of contingent and precarious labor, such forms have become
increasingly central in the continuing reproduction of capitalist
domination, particularly since the neoliberal reaction to the social
insurgencies of the 1960s and 70s which was followed by the capitalist
counterattacks in the 1980s. The Chainworkers thus moved their area
of focus increasingly to the cultural and media spheres, trying to
find bases of antagonism not primarily or even necessarily within the
usually recognized locations of work, but through all through the
social fabric and areas where capitalist dynamics have seeped into. As
the formerly existing space of the workplace was fractured by changes
in the capitalist nature of work, organizing through cultural politics
attempted to create a shared basis for a politics which was not based
upon being located in the same physical workplace, but rather through
the creation of shared positions and commonality in various cultural
fields. In other words, being located with the same workplace gave
workers a common experience and space from which it was possible to
organize, a space which no longer exists in the distributed forms of
production and swing shifts that are more common in today?s economy.
Thus the strategy shifts to using forms of cultural politics and
symbolism to form a common space to organize from.

This is based on an understanding that cultural production is not an
adjunct or addition to the ?real work? of capitalist production but
increasingly (particularly within highly industrialized areas) is
the work that is a key component of it. And despite all the hoopla
about the allegedly non-hierarchical and non-exploitative ?new media?
workplace that circulated during the 1990s and through the dot.com
frenzy, the new boss was just as horrible as the old one, and even
more so for those who didn?t occupy the few relatively privileged
positions in such workplaces that had become emblematic of this
transformation (for an excellent account of this hype and its reality,
see the book No Collar by Andrew Ross). Precarity in many ways is the
inversion of the forms of struggle and exodus that emerged during the
1970s. Capital found ways to take people?s desires for less work and
for forms of flexible labor and arrangements, and turned them into
increasingly uncertain conditions as social welfare provisions and
neoliberal deregulation were brought into the Mediterranean countries.

Precarity as a concept was quite useful in creating an opening for
repoliticizing everyday life and labor relations, which was needed
in a period when the social energies unleashed by organizing around
summit protests had clearly reached the its limit. At its best,
precarity became a method deploying a cultural politics based around
a realization that the unstable and uncertain forms of social life
that existed were closely connected by a series of new enclosures to
the forms of debt and financial bondage being created: each imposition
of structural adjustment programs by the International Monetary Fund
in the so-called Third World is connected the dismantling of social
services in the First, the enclosures of common lands is related to
the increasing enclosure of people?s time, energies, and creativity,
and so forth.

This was accomplished through the development of an array of cultural
symbols and actions, such as the figure of San Precario, which uses
the common image of the Catholic saint to represent the figure of the
precarious work and her desire for communication, transportation,
housing, resources, and affection. Originally developed as a means to
?celebrate? the newly generalizing conditions of working on Sundays
(which has until recently been quite rare in Italy), San Precario
quickly caught on as a meme and rhetorical device for bringing to
public discussion precarious conditions and instability. San Precario
has since appeared at numerous rallies, actions, parades, and events,
where followers have had ?miracles? performed for them such as the
autonomous reduction of prices. This practice of autoreduction, or
negotiating by mob, originated in Italy during the 1970s to combat
rapid inflation in costs of food, clothing, electricity, and other
necessities (accompanied by squatting and a massive refusal of
payment). This practice was renewed at a guaranteed income demo on
November 6, 2004 at a supermarket owned by the former Italian prime
minister Silvia Berlusconi when 700 people entered the store demanding
a 70% discount on everything, chanting that ?everything costs too
much.? While negotiations occurred many people simply left with food
and provisions, many of whom had not been involved in the demo at all.

Another innovative tactic was the holding of fashion show by the
designer Serpica Naro to highlight conditions of precarious workers.
In February 2005 during the Milano Fashion Week anti-precarity
activists disrupted a high profile Prada catwalk, and then threatened
to disrupt a fashion show for the controversial designer Serpica Naro,
which was planned to be held at a car park in Milan only accessible
by one bridge. Police contacted the show?s agent to warn him about
the possible disruption. But as the event began, the police became
confused when the crowd (which was supposed to ?disrupt? the show),
starting laughing at them, instead of being angry and frustrated
since the police were preventing them from moving. Even stranger was
that they were accompanied by the models and organizers themselves,
who then proceed to produce the permits showing that it was they who
had organized the show to begin with! There was no Serpica Naro ?
it was all a hoax based on a clever rearranging of ?San Precario.?
When the media began to arrive, still largely unaware of this, they
were treated to a fashion show highlighting the precarious conditions
of those involved in the fashion industry and related sectors (such
as garment manufacture). This event turned the tables in a highly
media saturated political climate like Italy (where someone much of
Berlusconi?s power was through his use and control of the media) and
managed to break down expectations of what constitutes activism and
political action.

The most visible expression of the concept, which starting in 2000
had started to become adopted by various sections of the anti-
globalization movement, are the EuroMayDay Parades, which started in
Italy in 2001. Employing carnival like forms of protest and tactical
absurdity these events sought to revive the Wobbly tradition of humor
and satire in politics as well as breaking with more traditional
trade unions and social democratic parties, which had taken part
in the institutional decision making that ushered in the currently
increasingly intense and unstable social conditions. Precarity was
used a rallying cry to find points of commonality between forms of
labor and generalized social situations of insecurity, for instance
between the positions of lowly paid workers in chain stores, computer
programmers and data manipulators, and the highly exploited and
blackmailed labor of undocumented migrants. The goal was to tease
out these common points and positions, build alliances across the
social sphere, and find ways to bring together antagonisms against
these common but differing forms of exploitation. The first May Day
parade in Milano brought out 5,000 people and created a flying picket
that succeeded in shutting down all the major chainstores in the city
center. By 2003 the event has grown to 50,000 people and inspired
similar events across Europe. A European network was created in 2004
during the ?Beyond the ESF? forum in Middlesex that took place at the
same time as the European Social Forum and led to events taking place
in 20 cities across Europe in 2005 and a march of 150,000 in Milan.

And in many ways this seemed a very fitting approach, for the concept
of precarity described quite aptly many of the situations of various
emerging movements, such as the Intermittents du Spectacle, a group
of seasonal arts and cultural workers who attracted attention by
organizing against their uncertain situations by disrupting live TV
news broadcasts and the Cannes Film Festival. San Precario himself,
who is now widely used in the media to refer to these forms of
organizing, has both a holy day (February 29th) and a sacred location
(created during an occupation of Venice Beach during a film festival
there). The concept also seemed to capture well the organizing of
casualized Parisian McDonalds workers who occupied their workplaces;
migrant organizing against detention and deportation (such as the
often celebrated san papiers movement of undocumented migrants); and
many other of the struggles that have emerged recently. It could
arguably be used to describe organizing such as the actions against
recent changes in immigration law in the US and around the conditions
of domestic and sex workers, the recent (and first) demonstrations
by workers against Wal-Mart that occurred in Florida, as well as
campaigns such as the IWW Starbucks Workers Campaign, the New Zealand
based ?Super Size My Pay? campaign, and the Taco Bell boycott
campaign put together by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (and the
Student-Farmworker Alliance that grew out of it). These are claimed
as signs of the emergence of a new social subject, the precariat,
which is the condition of autonomous proletarian self-activity in the
increasingly exploitative conditions of neoliberal capitalism.

But in many ways, haven?t we been precarious for quite some time?
As Jacques Ranciere observes in the quote that begins this article,
a precarious existence is perhaps the defining condition of the
proletariat: indeed, the bloody terror and dispossession of primitive
accumulation is precisely the process through which a state of
precarity, the inability to effectively live outside of capitalist
relations, is created. And what does it mean to speak about precarity
in situations that have a far different political, economic, and
social context? For instance in the US, where to a large extent there
have never existed the forms of ?job contracts? and increased forms
of labor protection that are now under attack in places like Italy
and Spain. In such a context it is silly to talk about the process of
social relations becoming precarious, because they have been for a
very long time. And in countries where such protections existed, they
only operated for a relatively brief period of time, namely the era of
the Fordist-Keynesian welfare/warfare state that existed from the end
of WWII until the 1980s.

In some ways arguments around precarious labor emerge out of, and are
based upon, certain latent assumptions and conditions concerning the
role of the welfare state and social democracy that are fundamentally
different from those that exist in the US. They rely implicitly upon
people recalling what might, in general, be described as the slightly
better job that various European attempts at social regulation of
the economy and creating forms of security for their populations,
admittedly measures taken because of the larger and more militant
social movements that have existed there. In other words, discussions
around precarity draw some of their rhetorical force from an implicit
positive appraisal of conditions that formerly existed in which people
were not in a precarious position, or perhaps were less threatened by
forms of insecurity, previous the relatively recent (although having
crept up for some time) attacks on social welfare and corresponding
deregulations of labor markets and dismantling of social security
measures along with the creation of larger political frameworks (such
as the European Union) that have enforced a large degree of these
changes on individual nation-states.

This can be seen in the usage of ideas posed as a response to
precarious conditions, such as basic/guaranteed income and
flexicurity. Basic income was an idea first popularized in the milieu
of 1970s autonomist politics, particular in Italy, to argue that
people held the rights to a basic form of subsistence and ability to
survive regardless of forms of recognized labor they were involved in.
This was important both in acknowledging the importance of the many
activities of social reproduction (housework, caring for children and
the elderly, etc) that are usually unwaged, and in trying to separate
income from labor time spent in forms of capitalist work. Flexicurity
as a concept has emerged more recently, most noticeably as a policy of
the Danish government, who has taken the somewhat paradoxical approach
of both deregulating labor markets and forms of employment while also
strengthening the provision of social welfare services (as opposed to
the usual tact of dismantling the apparatus of the welfare state at
the same time). Social movements have thus used notions of flexicurity
across Europe, usually inflected with a more radical tinge, to argue
for measures to support people?s ability to exist under conditions of
instability and uncertainty. In other words, the argument is made that
it is not the uncertainty of flexible conditions and employment itself
that is necessarily undesirable in itself, but rather that there are
not measures existing to ensure that people can be secure in these
conditions: thus the idea of flexicurity, or flexible security.

It should be readily obvious how such arguments are inflected to
various degrees by social democratic assumptions. After all, whose
going to provide this basic income / flexicurity? If not the nation-
state, then where are the measures enacted from, the EU? Some other
political space that has not clearly emerged yet? As Brian Holmes
argues in the essay ?Images of Fire,? forms of violence and racism
have already injected themselves into the notion of flexicurity and
thus overdetermine it in a context marked by exclusion. In other
words, a concept that emerged in a context of racism and forms of
social domination, in this case a reliance on the hyperexploited
labor of migrants and in domestic spaces, cannot easily be separated
from this context without being shaped by it. This is not to say
that such is necessarily the case, but rather that there needs to be
serious discussion about how those kinds of dynamics can be avoided,
particularly if a concept such as precarity is to be used in the
US, which has a long standing and particularly intense history of
intersecting dynamics of race, class, gender, and social power.

Also, and perhaps more fundamentally, there is a risk of identifying
common positions and grounds for struggle by drawing out the
implications of changes in the forms of labor that do not necessarily
resonate with those experiencing them, or do not necessarily produce
unproblematic alliances. As the Madrid-based feminist collective
Precarias a la Deriva observed, while those involved in designing a
webpage and providing a hand-job for a client can both be understood
to engaged in a form of immaterial labor (forms of work more based
on cultural or symbolic rather than physical production), one which
is connected through overall transformations on structures of labor
and social power, these are two forms of work hugely inflected by
the social value and worth assigned to them. And thus any politics
that is based on the changing nature of work has to consider how
differences in access to social power and the ability to have a voice
about one?s conditions affect organizing from those conditions, and
the possibility, as well as difficulties, of creating alliances
between them. To continue using the same example, how do we form a
politics based upon those conditions without those involved in a
form of labor with greater social prestige (for instance web design
or computer-based work) speaking for those who do not have the same
access to forms of social power and ability to voice their concerns
(in this instance, prostitutes). There is a huge potential to recreate
a form of paternalistic liberal politics, only this time based upon an
understanding of a connected position in an overall form of economic

Or to use another example, one could argue that both the people
involved in the riots that started in Paris suburb Clichy-sous-Bois
and spread across France last year, and those involved in the massive
student and labor protests and occupations against the introduction
of new flexible labor contracts for young workers, are involved in
organizing against the same dynamics of uncertainty and exclusion.
That, however, does not mean that there is easily or necessarily a
common basis for political alliance between those positions based
upon that shared condition. Or at very least there is not a basis
for alliance between those two situations until political organizing
occurs which draws upon those conditions to create common grounds
for alliance rather than assuming one exists based on large scale
transformations in social and political power. To borrow another
argument from Precarias a la Deriva, perhaps rather than using a
notion of precarity and its forms based on the changing compositions
of labor (such as those embodied in an understanding of the difference
between a chainworker and a brainworker), it would be more useful to
consider how differences in social position and conditions creates
possibilities for differing forms of insurgency and rebellion, and how
to work between these various possibilities.

And this is the question that ultimately determines whether a concept
such as precarity is useful within a US context: can it be used to
contribute to constituting a common ground of the political that does
not recreate conditions where certain groups assumptions are hoisted
upon others or where the implicit social democratic assumptions
work their ways into radical politics? The idea is not to import a
discussion around precarious labor and radical politics from Italy,
France, or Spain, in the hopes that such ideas and practices could
just be translated and reused unproblematically. It is just a question
of literal translation of the words, but a translation that finds
resonance with a particular cultural, social, and political context.
Rather, the task is to learn from the way that discussions around
precarity have been developed to ferment political antagonisms and
everyday insurgency in a particular context, and to see how a process
like that can occur elsewhere, drawing from particularities of the
location. The grounds of politics themselves are precarious, composed
of an uncertain and constantly shifting terrain. Whether a concept
such as precarity is useful for recomposing the grounds and basis for
a radical politics is not something determined by the concept itself,
but rather how those who use it employ it.

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