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The imposition of neoliberal economic policies and the globalisation of trade, finance and increasingly labour over the last 30 years has resulted in some pretty devastating changes. And some of the biggest changes have been in the class structures of many modern states. It is increasingly difficult to identify a 'proletariat' in the sense of a homogeneous class of people involved in factory-based mass production. Even in the burgeoning manufacturing sectors of countries such as China, the nature of the 'traditional' classes has fundamentally changed.
Guy Standing considers that we are now in a 'tertiary time', that societies have undergone a process of 'tertiarisation'. No longer is time divided between work, play and rest. And no longer is our geography divided between workplace, home and leisure. Everything, in Zygmunt Baumann's term, has become more 'liquid', less hard-defined. And in this post-modern and thoroughly commodified era, the homogeneous classes have given way to something far more fluid, heterogeneous and potentially dangerous.
There are now essentially four classes. There is a numerically tiny super-rich elite whose relationship with the rest of humanity appears fleeting at best. Then there is the 'salariat', still maintaining their career privileges of pensions, holidays and other employment benefits. Alongside the salariat there are the professional technicians, or 'proficians' as Standing terms them. Often working as highly-paid consultants and contractors, they do not conform to the old 9 to 5, jobs-for-life pattern but move from job to job, company to company as desired/required. Below them are a dwindling number of manual workers in the older sense of the term, the former bastions of 'old labour'. And then there is the 'precariat'.
To simply say that the precariat is just 'everyone else' is unhelpful. However, it is difficult to clearly define and delineate such a heterogeneous 'class' - not least because the grouping does not recognise itself as a 'class-for-itself'. At the same time, the group is growing. It is first and foremost a result of 'commodification':
'This involves treating everything as a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without effective 'agency' (the capacity to resist). Commodification has been extended to every aspect of life...' (P26)
Standing would, I think, agree with the sentiments expressed by Michael Sandel in his book 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets'. Everything now, it seems, can be bought and sold. The neoliberal project of marketising everything, the sweeping away of all barriers to marketability, has meant that any collective barriers to exploitation have been removed in the name of individual freedom - but the result is that if you have nothing to sell, you have no value. In the interests of the market, labour flexibility - the ability to hire and fire at will which is the ultimate commodification of labour - has been, as Standing says 'the major direct cause of the growth of the global precariat.' (P31)
This 'labour flexibility' has meant that the precariat is increasingly made up of women and older people. Both women and older people are cheaper - pushing down the real value of wages. Young people have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers. Faced with shortages of meaningful employment, many may stay in education - but here the process of commodification means not only that education is increasingly expensive but also that the range of courses on offer is dictated more by marketing and the need to attract fee paying customers than any desire to develop human potential.
Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants. The inclusion of this group illustrates the difficulty, not of defining the group, but of the class identifying itself as a class. So often migrants are used as scapegoats, accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist:
'Capital welcomes migration because it brings low cost malleable labour. The groups most vehemently opposed to migration are the old (white) working and lower middle class, squeezed by globalisation and falling into the precariat.' (P103)
This argument is also strongly made by Owen Jones in his book 'Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class'.
The end result of all this is a huge group of people continually scrabbling along, always on the look out for the next job, always aware that their current job may not last, always hovering between paid employment and state benefits. And too often those benefits are in reality subsidies for frankly bad employers. This precarious existence is exhausting and hugely time-consuming, making the acquisition of new skills and the development of existing ones far more difficult. And the line between legality and illegality becomes increasingly blurred too. So the class may appear feckless, unambitious, even stupid (see again Owen Jones). Which results in an increasingly 'liberal paternalist' and 'panopticon' society where the rulers 'nudge' people into what they consider to be better ways, while watching, monitoring, measuring and evaluating every move.
All this is hugely depressing but so, so accurate. And it is also, as Standing points out, so dangerous too. Many have pointed to the economic similarities between now and the 1930s. But the rise of far-right groups suggests that the parallels go further than just the economic. This diverse class, if it cannot recognise itself as a class, may be politically exploited. It is perhaps interesting to note, in this respect, the recent elections in Greece - where generally speaking the youth voted for the left-wing Syriza party and older voters supported the more conservative parties including, of course, the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party. Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US reflects the feelings of powerlessness and alienation of the so-called 'squeezed middle' - so squeezed that increasingly they are, of course, no longer in the middle.
Standing does, in the end, put forward some concrete proposals for not only averting the dangers inherent in this class but also for alleviating the growing hardships and deprivations experienced by it. One major strand is the provision of a 'basic income':
'The core of the proposal is that every legal resident of a country or a community, children as well as adults, should be provided with a modest monthly payment.' (P171)
This truly universal benefit would have far reaching consequences. For a start, it would mean that the precariat would actually have time - time to consider what to do next, to plan and consider and not always to be worrying about job security, about where the rent money is coming from. It would also change the nature of employment. Instead of the increasingly oppressive workfare schemes which emphasise that work - any work at all - is better than idleness, resulting in deep resentment and frustration, it would mean that employers would have to offer more than simply the minimum wage, effectively subsidised by state benefits. In fact, Standing goes on to suggest that labour should actually be even more 'commoditised'. If no-one wants the job an employer is offering, that employer will be forced to offer better wages until someone does take it, or until the employer is forced to reconsider the nature of the work on offer.
In many ways this is a pretty depressing book as I see the evidence Standing cites all around me every day. But his proposals, although initially seemingly radical and utopian (he refers to them himself as a 'Politics of Paradise') do make sense. And he has added his voice to a growing chorus of writers and thinkers who point out that the current situation is simply unsustainable, in every sense of the word.