An editor of this rag recently admonished lefties for their enthusiastic adoption of “precariat,” a blanket term for workers with little-to-no job security. In Sunkara’s estimation, a word that encompasses both graphic designers and migrant farm workers elides too many differences to be theoretically useful. He points out that even Dissent—that staid bastion of social democracy—has engaged with the term. But the term is enjoying increasing relevance outside of the usual circles. From niche popularity in Guy Standing’s The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class, “precariat” has risen to the ranks of McMillan Dictionary buzzword, and Fashion Magazine’s word of the day.
Sunkara is right that the precariat doesn’t make sense as a class. The term breaks Marxist orthodoxy by obscuring differences between the working class and the middle class, threatening to paint different economic circumstances and interests with the same brush. It’s important not to lose sight of that dangerous possibility, but the limitation doesn’t render the idea completely useless either. If we seek the universal concessions from the state mentioned briefly at the end of Sunkara’s post, precarity provides a framework for capturing the anxieties of the underemployed graphic designer and the habitually exploited migrant worker and setting their common experiences side-by-side as evidence of shared need for socialist alternatives.
Changes in the structure of work within the creative class make it easier for a Brooklyn coffice denizen to empathize with other precarious laborers, and by extension to embrace a democratic socialist critique of labor under capitalism. The situation calls to mind the moment when America’s chattering classes encountered images of white girls getting pepper sprayed during the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street. It was no coincidence that in the days and weeks following the incident, New York City’s racist Stop-And-Frisk policy was called into question in the mainstream media. For many people with race and class privilege, Occupy Wall Street was the first time the NYPD had obviously infringed on their rights. Suddenly everyone saw the police as Bloomberg’s personal army. It wasn’t about changing reality, it was about the privileged suddenly facing the abuse previously reserved for the poor.
The down economy can have the same effect on political consciousness, if we make the connection. Invented vocabulary like “precariat” isn’t just some mirror of the neoliberal obsession with flexible workforces under the “new economy.” It demonstrates the need across vast swaths of the population for a safety net untethered to specific jobs. Abrahamian’s work in Dissent and Standing’s in The Precariat benefit from a framework that unites members of the working and crumbling middle class in their tenuous relationship to the benefits that, for much of the twentieth century, were more stable. It’s a starting point for thinking about how to organize the resulting convergence of interests. So, up with the precariat!
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