Guy Standing recently wrote a short introduction for openDemocracy on the main themes of his new book on the precariat. He ends the essay by suggesting three proposals to develop a precariat-sensitive political program.
But before commenting on his proposals I need to note a glaring omission in his analysis of the current global situation. He begins by saying that:
We are at the crisis point in global transformation analogous to Karl Polayni’s account of the impact of the rise of the market economy in England in The Great Transformation.
To situate the “global transformation” simply on the plane of economics and ignore the obvious environmental catastrophe wrought by capitalism diminishes the social impact he alludes to in reference to Polayni. In fact, if we factor in the dire economic consequences of climate change and resource depletion, the crisis we face dwarfs the rise of the market economy by many magnitudes.
Returning to Standing’s proposals for reanimating the democratic polity, his first proposal is to call for the “democratic governance of occupations.” This seems odd coming after his description of the tenuous nature of employment and its decreasing relevance for the vast majority of the population. On the other hand, guilds of highly skilled individuals are preferable to state control, or maybe worse, corporate control – one by licensing and the other by monetary award for problematic purposes.
The second proposal focuses on the genesis of social policy. Standing advocates a grassroots approach to the formation of social programs in an effort to remove “bureaucrats, commercial surrogates and “experts.” It is difficult for me to imagine how this would work when foundations stand behind most efforts to formulate policy and where this isn’t the case, the amplitude of the effort is strictly circumscribed.
JASecon, a miniscule effort that I am involved with, that relies on volunteers throughout, has had modest success in the SF Bay area encouraging various strands of the grassroots economy to collaborate and expand their programs. Without financial resources, however, we are severely limited even in the best uses of almost free services like the internet offers.
Standing’s third proposal is for a guaranteed income for all. This is what he says:
Chronically insecure people make bad democrats. Psychologists have shown they lose a sense of altruism and social solidarity; they become intolerant, supporting discriminatory and punitive measures against “strangers”, or people not-like-me.
To combat this, we should work towards giving everybody basic income security. This is the only way to achieve security in an open market economy; social insurance cannot reach the precariat; means testing leads to coercive workfare. What is needed is basic income as a right. Modest monthly stabilisation grants, with tax clawed back from the rich, would also pump money into the economy in recessions and withdraw it during booms.
On the continuum of advocates for basic income, Standing leans towards the right side as he seems to advocate grants fluctuating with wages and with stipulations enforcing both mandatory voting and annual political participation at party conferences.
For me, the most stimulating aspect of Standing’s essay is his reference to the Greek schole. To quote:
A challenge for twenty-first century democracy is loss of control over time, involving erosion of what the ancient Greeks called schole, meaning learning (schooling) and leisure, defined in terms of deliberative participation in the public sphere, the polis. The problem is that the precariat is neither prepared for schole – instead being offered commodified schooling that de-emphasises culture, history, art and subversive knowledge – nor energised or motivated to participate in political life. Instead, it is supposed to labour flexibly, to shop, to consume and to play
Occupiers, here in America and overseas, have often expressed their enthusiasm for their occupations in terms of learning and, after communal work, leisure. Even for the students who joined the encampments, the community of scruffy scholars they met provided a venue for exploration that they lacked within the confines of academia. No surprise there, of course.
And lastly, let us return to that classic text of Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy, a text that Standing ignores. Lafargue, the “bad boy” of Marxism, understood that no liberation from work can occur by simply taking over the industrial behemoth, work itself needs to be suppressed. To rescue the planet from its demise, to reach beyond growth, what better place to start than with the evisceration of the work ethic?