Very rough draft of a talk I’m working on, comments welcome.

Why is there no precarity discourse in the United States?

I don’t remember when I first heard the term precarity. I know it was on aut-op-sy, an email list of leftists and activists around the world, generally influenced by the Italian autonomist and operaist traditions. I believe I first heard the term in relation to the EuroMayday mobilizations against European precaritization. Since then, I’ve been in a number of conversations informally with people about why the term hasn’t caught on in the US.


[QUOTE ALTHUSSER ON MODES OF MATERIALITY – MODES OF PRECARITY/PRECARITIZATION.] As far as I can tell, the European precarity mobilizations address several phenomena, or precaritization at several registers in several fields.

Broadly speaking, there is precarity in the sphere of consumption and the sphere of production. The former has to do with the ability to secure access to goods and services needed and desired to reproduce labor power and for various purposes in life. This includes healthcare, housing, sustenance, and other things. Precaritization in this register involves to things. One is the erosion of welfare state provisions which provide a social safety net. The second is the lowering in real wages, defined in terms of buying power of wages paid, whether through lowered rates of pay or through rising prices.

Precaritization in the sphere of production has several facets. First, this refers to unemployment, which results in difficulty in finding a buyer to purchase one’s labor power in order to get wages with which to buy means of subsistence. Rising unemployment makes finding a job a more precarious proposition. Second, this refers to labor law. Precarity in this sense refers to the legal protections which exist for employees. There are currently pressures to ease these laws in Europe, as far as I can tell. Third, and relate to the second, there is the degree of enforcement of labor law and the seriousness which employers take the law. Fourth, there are changes in the times work. This has several facets. There are changes made in the duration of work contracts, by which one knows how long one has a job. This matches the growth of temp labor in the US. There are also changes in the number of hours worked – part time instead of full time, more overtime, etc – as well as changes in when work occurs – night work, weekend work, and so on.

All of these changes in production occur as an ensemble, and are a process of shifting power relations between workers and employers. Fundamentally, these processes are about the ability of employers to make use as they will of the labor power they purchase as a commodity. The changes in production and consumption are also linked, since they form the conditions of the sale of labor power – its purchase price, including expenses for the ‘social wage’ of the welfare state – as well as the conditions within which class struggle within and against the sale and the capitalist use of labor power.

I would like to make several observations. First, precarity in many of these senses is very old. As Jacques Ranciere comments, precarity is the condition of the proletariat as such, and thus is at least as old as the proletariat under capitalism, and probably older. Second, precarity or security is always a relative matter. The relative security of the proletariat at different moments in history is the result of class struggle. Third, moments of relative security are rarely moments of security for the entire global proletariat. Rather, they are moments of security for certain sectors of the proletariat. While these changes are tremendously important, it’s not clear to me that these changes should be taken as defining new eras. The continuities for other sectors – often the majority – of the proletariat are just as important, for instance the long running precarity of those who perform the majority of the predominantly unwaged and feminized labors of reproduction. [QUOTE RANCIERE ON LABOR ARISTOCRACIES’ IMAGES BEING UNIVERSALIZED.] Fourth, precarity as I’ve discussed it is not exactly of the labor process but rather is of the valorization process. That is, it is of labor power and surplus value, not of use value production. This is not an absolute distinction. Just-in-time production, for example, is a form of arranging the production process and one which is a sort of engine of precaritization, in order to make the workforce more malleable to just-in-time production demands. At the same time, just-in-time production is possible to some extent for nearly any type of product, though certain technical factors do impact the speed and coordination which is available. What I want to stress here, though, is that precarity is not a technical factor or the result of technical factors of production, but rather is a political condition – in the sense of class politics – which is the condition for capitalist production.

Those observations aside, let me return to my opening question. Why is there no discourse on precarity in the United States? I have two answers to this question. First, a counter-question. What does it mean to be a discourse on something? Must a discourse on something mention that something by the name it is known by in other circles? Surely not. Why is there no discourse on precarity is a question akin to why is there no discourse on class. It is my view that there is a discourse on class in the United States, many of them actually, though the word “class” and related terms which appear in academic discussions of class do not often appear in this discourse. Similarly, there have been several discourses on precarity. I grew up just behind so-called Generation X. I remember reading and hearing about the idea that for the first time in a very long time Americans in general were going to start achieving less than their parents did in terms of economic success and comfort. While I do want to note that this “Americans in general” excludes many people who didn’t experience the levels of success equally, this phenomenon certainly speaks to my own experience and that of many friends of my same age. The Generation X discourse was a type of discourse on precaritization without using the word “precarity.” There are also magazines like TempSlave and Processed World, which addressed aspects of precaritization without using the term, and I’m sure there are many others which addressed the growth of part time and temp labor. There is also the attention and concern over part time and temp labor as well as the shift to a so-called service econom, which has been addressed in the mainstream media as well as been attended to in mainstream union circles in the US. There is also the recent debates and mobilizations over immigration, which is intimately bound up with precaritization. Debates over NAFTA and the FTAA might also be considered in part discourses on precaritization, along with perennial discussion on the disappearance of the middle class. A fair amount of popular culture also deals with these issues. [ALSO, OLDER: IWW FOUNDING CONVENTION, “THE CASUAL LABORER” TRAMPS BUMS HOBOS, REPROLES + L&R.] In an important sense, then, there is or has been a precarity discourse in the US. The absence of the word “precarity” alone is not enough to say there is and has been no such discourse.

One could easily concede that there has been a US precarity discourse while retaining the force of the argument, that there have been mass mobilizations in Europe with no analog in the US. Bracketing the recent immigration mobilizations last May Day, let’s assume this is true. Why is this so? I contend that this is so because many of the processes of precaritization opposed currently in Europe have long been the case in the United States. The welfare state in the United States never reached the level of the welfare state in Europe, and attacks on the welfare state in the US in the 80s and 90s eroded it further. Thus, what I called precarity in the area of consumption has existed in the US for a long time. In production precarity has long been the case as well. Labor law in the United States has been weaker than that in other countries in many respects for at least the majority of the 20th century, with the doctrine of “at will employment” predominating. Recent European and Australian reforms in labor law are characterizable as the “Americanization” of their labor law. Furthermore, the enforcement provisions and resources of the relevant state administrative bodies that oversee labor law have never been strong in the US.

What is in common between the US and Europe is the growth of part-time and temporary work, and “nonstandard” work hours. Other changes in the US have accompanied changes in Europe but they have been less drastic, because conditions that serve as bulwarks against precarity at the institutional level were never as advanced in the US as elsewhere. In Europe recently there has been a more drastic set of changes, more widely operating precaritization processes. Anti-precarity movements have had more to crystallize around as a result.

I also want to stress that institutional factors are not the only conditions creating relative security or precarity. At least as important is an organized working class. Laws routinely go unenforced in many US workplaces because employees are not aware of the law, or do not have the power to enforce the letter of the law. In other US workplaces, collective organization has been able to impose better conditions and wages which create relatively greater security. [FOR EXAMPLE, THE TROQUEROS – INCLUDE DETAILS.] Overemphasis on institutional factors has been a problem in some parts of the European anti-precarity movements [QUOTE CHAINWORKERS, DEMORADICAL STUFF], which amounts to a renewed social democratic project dressed up in a new idiom. If this project is able to achieve gains it will be as a result of the mobilizations and organization which occurs, not because of the demands themselves.