Precarious work and contemporary capitalism

Jonathan White

Scarcely a week goes by at the moment without some press story about precarious work in Britain and it’s undeniable that something profound has happened to Britain’s labour market. The full-employment boasted by Tories is in truth closer to full under-employment – a swelling in the ranks of part-time workers. Self-employment, real and bogus has expanded massively. But what exactly is going on? And how should the labour movement respond?

For some writers today, we are living in a new world of work characterised by technologically dominated platform working in a gig economy. Work has become precarious, mobile, flexible, empty of meaning and probably just best endured in return for a basic income. This idea has been expressed in its most sophisticated form by Guy Standing who has argued that neoliberalism and post-Fordism are bringing with them the breakdown of old certainties about work and the emergence of a new class, a precariat. The precariat composed of migrant workers, downwardly mobile middle class professionals and the ‘left behind’ chronically under-employed in deindustrialised communities. It stands in opposition to the ‘salariat’ – those sections of the working population who have held onto secure work and it is qualitatively different from the old proletariat who consisted ‘mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionisation and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.’

Now, there are serious weaknesses with this analysis. Firstly, it’s a-historical. Working-class history is littered with precarious workers, many of them turning up in the annals of the trade union movement as leading sections of the old proletariat that’s supposed to have been overthrown. Secondly, it’s questionable how useful the concept of the precariat is for explaining what’s happening to the working class of the global south, whose ranks are being swelled by the movement of multinational capital. These people look more like the proletarians of 19th century Europe than components of a new class. Finally, it’s politically dubious. The concept of a precariat establishes a cleavage between the interests of different sections of the working class and, in Standing’s formulation at least, struggle is directed toward the achievement of a basic income that leaves existing property structures fundamentally unchallenged. Whatever it is, Standing’s vision is not one of a united working class engaged in self-emancipation.

However, we shouldn’t chuck out the idea of precariousness. It has currency because it describes something real that is happening to working people, and if the hot-takes emanating from Britain’s intelligentsia aren’t adequate, then we need better concepts for understanding what’s going on. In a new essay for Trade Union Futures, I look at how an engagement with Marx’s ideas can shed a different light on this issue and give some pointers to the trade union movement in how to respond. Here’s the argument in brief.

In capitalist societies Marx argued, businesses accumulate capital from the exploitation of working people: their ability to persuade and coerce people to contribute more work than they are paid for in wages. Because profits depend ultimately on this exploitation, capitalist firms constantly try to work out how to extract more labour from workers: cutting wages, intensifying work, introducing new ways of working and bringing in new technologies.

As capital accumulates, capitalist businesses draw ever more people into industrial work and away from work on the land or small property owning. At the same time, the capitalist businesses are constantly changing the technologies they use and the skills they need and seeking to replace expensive workers with cheaper ones, often women, children or migrants. Finally, the anarchic competition between capitalist firms leads to many businesses being driven to the wall or swallowed up.

In these ways, Marx argued, capitalism created its own surplus population, what he called an ‘industrial reserve army’. Ever growing numbers of workers are drawn into industrial production, others are cast out to join the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed. From this perspective, capitalism has always had a precariat. It’s partly the industrial reserve army of labour. But partly, precariousness is just a condition of life for the wider working class.

In the advanced capitalist West during the post-Second World War period, the so-called ‘Golden Age of capitalism’, it’s arguable that these forces at the heart of capitalism were relatively muted. But this was a brief period in the history of capitalism and it only really meant something in the advanced capitalist states. With the neoliberal turn, we’ve seen the forces creating precarious work unleashed once more. Now they run riot across the globe, fuelled by the development of financialised multinational corporations.

Today, monopolistic multinationals are decisive players in the global economy and the majority are now owned solely or predominantly by investment banks, investment funds or private equity. Why does this matter? It matters because these financial businesses look for steady flows of high dividend payments and they turn over their portfolios rapidly in search of the best returns. In the 1950s, the average shareholding was six years in duration. Now it’s six months. This changes the way that big businesses behave, gearing them to the creation of profit at any cost. CEOs of multinationals strive to keep the dividends flowing by growing fast through aggressive mergers and acquisitions, by share buybacks that artificially boost share prices and by tax avoidance. Most importantly for this essay, multinationals also try to drive down the cost of labour and this explains why they strive to create cheaper ‘flexible’ workforces that can be hired or fired at will and to offshore work to the new working class in the global south.,

These same companies have used their dominance of the state to beat down labour market regulations across the globe. Collective bargaining and employment law frameworks have come under sustained attack not just in Britain but in the USA, the EU, the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and across the global south. Multinational companies insist on flexible labour laws and the dismantling of collective bargaining arrangements as the price of investment.

Finally, the state employment sectors that were built up over the course of the twentieth century have come under sustained attack from multinationals and their finance capital backers. With marketisation and privatisation of public services have come the mantras of the New Public Management and the conscious attempt to fragment jobs and create flexible, precarious workers within the public sector.

What’s to be done? In the longer essay, I look at the state of the British economy, its working class and its unions in a bit more detail. But a few things can be suggested here.

Firstly, there are no magic bullets for unions. For all the boosterism surrounding ‘new small unions’, their actual record in organising and bargaining for precarious workers is certainly no better than that of big general unions like Unite or the GMB. Equally, there are problems with the way the TUC affiliated unions operate if entire workforces of precariously employed retail workers, for example, are fenced off by unions with no intention of organising them. The weak bargaining power of unions in the global south can be ameliorated to some degree by supply chain organising, but this is long-term and patient work with few quick wins. The bigger problem is that financialised multinationals controlled by remote shareholders have few incentives to engage in collective bargaining. This is what makes the issue of politics and ownership so vital. Unions interested in building workers power must recognise the limits of their ‘economic’ role and ensure they also mobilise around alternative economic and political strategies that aim to tackle the financialised ownership patterns of multinational capital.

At the same time, however, the ability of left political parties to gain and hold power will depend in part on the levels of active support they can mobilise from the masses of people organised in unions. Unions have no choice but to put major resources into confronting the reality of precarious work and organising around whatever can be won in the workplace. Otherwise they will simply wither. But if they can make themselves relevant to precariously employed workers in the modern proletariat through flexible organising and combining different strategies and tactics, and encompass this within active support for radical action to change the financialised ownership basis of contemporary capitalist businesses, then they can start to build genuine power in the workplace.

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