I recently had the privilege of attending a conference in Prague called “Of Money and Men”, where Professor Guy Standing, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), gave a talk.
This is the transcript of the first part of the talk, in which Guy discusses concepts of work, labour and leisure, globalisation, neo-liberalism and the precariat. In the second part he focuses on the topic of basic income.
“I love it when the chair doesn’t know me, that’s very good. It reminds me that I was invited last year to Silicon Valley – this opening remark has just reminded me of this – to talk about the precariat and basic income. Imagine a room with a number of billionaires in it, a lot of high-tech people, and they arranged for me to go out to Mountain View afterwards and then said “Guy, we’re going to take you to the laboratory”. And I [said] “ok”. They took me to the laboratory and they introduced me to a robot. And then they said “ask the robot to dance”. And I said “alright, ha-ha, I’ll be clever”. So I asked it to do a tai chi. And this robot, who looked like a Michelin man – you know, the tyres – did the most fantastic tai chi. And then he turned, this robot, and put his hand out like this – I presume it was a he – put his hand out like this and said “I’m going to take jobs away from the precariat”. Now what impressed me most of all about that was that he got the accent absolutely right. He said “precariat” in the right way. And I thought that was clever. And the argument, which I won’t go into, was quite amusing and illustrative of a number of points.
Now, listening to Robert (Skidelsky, the previous speaker), I thought I should change what I was going to say slightly. Because for 30 years I worked in the international labour organisation, rising to ridiculously high levels and I was always wrestling with the model of labourism of the 20th century, was always dissatisfied with it. And eventually when I resigned and went and wrote a book – which took me in effect thirty years to write – and the book was called “Work after Globalization: Building Occupational Citizenship”. And what I’d done is I went back to the ancient Greeks to look at how they conceptualised work. And the fundamental starting point for all the stuff that I’ve been writing since then, the book on the precariat and the new book on the precariat charter, which I’m going to be talking about, is that every age throughout history has had its stupidity about what is work and what is not work.
My claim is that the 20th century was the most stupid of all. Right? And there was a remark made by the man who was the butt of Keynes, Arthur Pigou, who basically said- he didn’t use the words I’m going to use – but he basically he said this; he said if he went and hired a housekeeper or a cook, a woman, national income would go up, employment would go up, economic growth would go up and the unemployment rate would go down. If he married her and she continued to do precisely the same work, national income would go down, employment would go down, economic growth would go down. He didn’t say the next bit; the politicians would be very unhappy and the unemployment rate would go up. Now you can’t get more stupid or sexist than that. Every feminist should shout every time a politician or a sociologist or anybody uses the term work when what they mean is labour.
Now when you go back to the Ancient Greeks, they had a conceptualisation which is very relevant for the 21st century and very relevant for the discourse around the precariat. I hope I’ll make that clear later. Essentially for the ancient Greeks, they had a four-fold conceptualisation. Labour was ponos, a mixture of pain and poverty. It was done by the banausoi, the metics, the slaves, the outsiders. A citizen didn’t do labour. A citizen – it was sexist in that time, of course, they meant men – did work, but work was praxis. Work was what you did with family and friends around the home, in philia, in civic friendship. It was the reproductive activity; it was the preserving-of-the-soul type of activity. In addition, people did play, recreation. A lot of recreation. Bodily functions; you need to rest, you need recreation. But what a citizen aspired to do was maximise his time and energies to schole, which was leisure in a different way from the modern conceptualisation. It was being a public persona, being active in the polis, in the life of society. And this sense of public action went through the analysis of Aristotle all the way through to Hannah Arendt. And I urge any of you who are interested in the subject matter to look back at her great book of 1957 “The Human condition”. It’s a fantastic book. I think she was fundamentally wrong on some of the concepts, but I think that essence of her work is relevant today.
Now, the 20th century, of course, compressed leisure and play and consumption all get muddled up, as Robert has mentioned. Labour was put on a pedestal. One of the reasons why so many people still are tied to labour is that all the entitlements were linked to labour – not to work. If you were doing full-time work in the soviet system or in the welfare state system you got entitlements; pensions, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, all sorts of things that came with labour. But if you were doing work that was not labour or you were only doing part-time labour, you didn’t get those things. That’s one of the major reasons why labourism has been having such a stranglehold on our society.
Now, the next contextual point I want to make is that in the 1970s, a time when I had just got my Doctorate from Cambridge, just learned all my tools of economics, suddenly my economics became obsolescent, because the Keynesian welfare state system of closed economies suddenly collapsed. I won’t go into that subject but we had the emergence of a new Polanyian, global transformation. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the thesis of Karl Polanyi and “The Great Transformation”. A disembedded phase dominated by financial capital where the old systems of regulation and social protection and redistribution break down, or are broken down, until you get so much insecurity and so much inequality that, in his words, you have a threat of the annihilation of civilisation. He saw the welfare state in the post-war era as re-embedding the economy in society, reducing those inequalities and insecurities. It was progressive for the time but it was built around labourism. In the 1980s all of that collapsed.
And you had the emergence of what we now call neoliberalism, dominated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek, the Mont Pelerin Society, Milton Friedman and all of their atomistic perspective. And what has happened, and I’ve developed it at length in the books, is essentially you have had a commodification of everything that can be commodified, a privatisation of everything that can be privatised and a dismantling – this is the final part – a dismantling of all the institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity. Why? Because they stand against the market. They are “distortions” – as Friedman would call them – that need to be removed.
And most fundamentally, and least emphasised in the literature and in the political discourse, was the systematic dismantling of all occupational communities. The guilds, the professional and craft guilds that for hundreds and hundreds of years had shaped work and given a structure to work. You entered the profession, you were an apprentice, you learned, you became, you moved up. Suddenly that model which gave people their ethics around work and leisure, in the Greek sense, suddenly they were seen as an enemy. Milton Friedman wrote his first book with Simon Kuznets in 1945 about the need to dismantle the professions – they stand against the market. So we’ve seen in this neoliberal era a shift to licensing and a shift to state regulation of occupational life. It’s a very important part of how work and labour have been developing. But that’s not what I’m going to be talking about in the next few minutes, but it’s an important part.
What has happened since then is that there has been the emergence of what I call, and what is called, rentier capitalism. Keynes famously wrote in “The General Theory” that within the next few years there would be the euthanasia of the rentier; the euthanasia of the person who was taking rent. But since the globalisation era has taken off, he’s anything but dead. Rent income has shot up as a huge share of total income and it’s part of the story of the growing inequality enigma.
And what has happened – and I’m going through things very quickly because I want to get the context and then talk about the main subject of today – is that with the development of the neoliberal model you’ve had a globalisation, a global labour market that’s emerged, in which, overnight historically speaking, the world’s labour supply has quadrupled. We have an extra two billion people who are part of the open labour market. All of those two billion, who’ve become part of that global labour market, were habituated to receive and live on an income that in the 1980s was about one fiftieth of what a British or German or American worker would have expected as the norm. We can quibble with the figures, but a huge difference. And what’s been happening is a slow, slow convergence as the global market system develops. But we’ve got a long way to go. There’s been huge downward pressure on our wages, and our wages in the US, in France, in Germany, in Britain, and you go about, Scandinavia where I’ve just been, have been stagnating for three decades! Thirty years! That’s an extraordinary fact, a stylised fact. Anybody who says work is the best route out of poverty should be encouraged to take up sewage cleaning or something like that because they don’t know anything about how labour markets work.
Now, what’s happened there is, in fact, that we have seen a class fragmentation taking place. Issues of class have not gone away. It’s fundamentally important to see what is happening through the prism, through the eyes of a new class structure being superimposed on old class structures.
What we’ve got is a plutocracy of oligarchs – disgustingly affluent – all gaining their vast incomes from rent in various forms, from intellectual property, more intellectual property, patents, all that stuff.
A long way below them you’ve got an elite trying to get to the plutocracy, serving the plutocracy, getting a lot of rent themselves.
Below them is what when I was at university we were told was going to become the vast majority of everywhere, what I call the salariat; people who have long-term employment, contracts, employment security, access to pensions, paid holidays, more paid holidays, paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave, you name it. All those non-wage benefits that give people in the salariat security. But there’s something that worries the salariat. I get a lot of emails from people who say “well, I’m in the salariat”. I got one from a BBC producer recently who had interviewed me or had me on a program. He said “I don’t want you to say, but I’m part of the salariat but I’m very worried because my sons and daughters are not”. That’s worrying a lot of people in the salariat.
Alongside the salariat you have a lot of what I call proficians; people who don’t want employment security – they’re much too clever for that. They know it all. They have the means of production over their shoulder or in their pockets, all their gadgets. A lot of them were in that audience in Silicon Valley so they recognise themselves when I talked about it. They only have one problem: they labour and work with such that intensity they risk burn-out at age approximately 27 and a half, thereabouts. They suddenly just can’t keep it up. But you know the types. Robert was mentioning airports; you see a lot of them in airports.
Below them is the old proletariat. Now, you in Eastern Europe – I’ve lived in Hungary and worked in this region in the early 90s – you know more about the proletariat than most. The old proletariat was habituated to accept a life of stable, full-time labour, labour, labour… until they dropped dead. We saw a lot of that. But the welfare state and the labour laws and the collective bargaining system were built for the proletariat. And it’s shrinking everywhere.
And it’s below that you get the precariat. The precariat can be defined in class terms. And it’s extraordinary that since I wrote the books I’ve been asked to talk about it in well over 350 places in 35 countries. It’s a global phenomenon. I get thousands of emails from people who say “that’s me you’re talking about”. The precariat consists of people who are being habituated to accept and internalise a life of unstable labour. All casual, all these new statuses: zero-hour contracts, internships. And the new one is crowd labour. Within the next five years, one in every three labour transactions will be done online. The very concept of employment is going to look like a minority phenomenon. Huge numbers are entering the crowd labour pool and, again, many are expected to have their own means of production. And they’re being super-exploited. Highly insecure, doing tasks, bits-and-pieces lives.
But more importantly, conceptually, is that people in the precariat have to do an enormous amount of work for labour that doesn’t get counted as labour or work. It’s not in our statistics, it’s not in our political rhetoric, but if you are in the precariat you know you have to do a lot of work that’s not for work. You have to apply for numerous jobs. I receive emails from people who’ve had to apply to thousands of jobs. Think how much time that’s using. You think its leisure? It’s work. They have to wait around, they have to queue. They have to retrain because the last lot of retraining was no bloody good! Excuse me. You have to queue for some behaviour test from some bureaucrat, etc. Anybody in the precariat knows that. So you suffer from what I call the precariatised mind. You don’t what’s the best way to use your time. “Do I do a bit more of this, a bit more of that? A bit more of that? A bit more of that? Oh dear, I’ve done the wrong thing”. You’re living in stress. That’s why the artists are so interested in these issues, right?
In addition, this is the first time in history when the amodal level of education is higher than the modal level of labour they’re expected to do. It creates a lot of status frustration.
The second dimension is that this is actually the first major class which is having to rely almost entirely on money wages. It doesn’t get pensions, paid holidays, paid this, paid that or anything. But these wages are falling and are more volatile than they’ve ever been. So people in the precariat are living on the edge of unsustainable debt. One accident, one mistake, one loss of friendship; you can join the lumpen proletariat out on the street. A reality.
The third dimension, and this is why the second book, the subtitle, which all the translators have written – it’s been translated into 15 languages – and every single one writes to me said “will you please explain this one word?” The subtitle is “From denizens to citizens”
And the concept of a denizen was a medieval concept in Britain, which referred to someone who, when they came to a town, was given a more limited range of rights than the citizens of the town. And this is the first time in history when millions of people are being converted from citizens into denizens. Not just migrants and refugees, but people who, the precariat, who are losing all the five major rights. They’re losing cultural rights because they cannot belong to a community of their choice that gives them solidarity. They’re losing civil rights because they can’t get access to justice, they can’t afford it, and they don’t have due process. They’re losing social rights because instead of universal rights to state benefits they’re means-tested, behaviour-tested, all of these nasty tests. And sanctioned! That’s losing rights. And they’re losing economic rights because they cannot practise what they’re qualified to do. And finally – and this is why it’s a dangerous class – they’re losing political rights because in the political spectrum they do not see parties or politicians representing their needs and aspirations. The precariat is today’s dangerous class because it rejects the old social democracy, it rejects neoliberalism, but there’s a vacuum.
Part of the precariat are falling out of old working class communities, the proletariat. Their father and mother may have had occupations of some status. They were dockers, mineworkers, ship builders. So they had a status. They don’t have that. They don’t have that feeling that they belong. Now this group, because they don’t have a lot of education are listening to the sirens of neo-fascist populists, playing on their fears and insecurities. Donald Trump loves them. Donald Trump recently said, among his numerous idiotic statements, that the little-educated people love me. I wonder why.
But essentially, that is a dangerous trend, because the larger the number of people in this part of the precariat, the more likely we’re going to see a neo-fascist political movement. It’s coming – it’s come – it’s coming.
The second part of the precariat are the migrants, the Roma, the disabled, who don’t have a sense of home and they keep their heads down. Every now and then the strains get too great because they have no security.
The third part are the people who go to university, go to college. They were promised a future career. They were promised an occupation. They were promised to become a professional. And they come out knowing they’ve bought a lottery ticket that’s worth less and less and it’s costing more and more. They don’t have a future at the moment. They won’t follow the Trumps, they won’t vote for Marine Le Pen next year, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary. But they’re looking for a progressive politics and they don’t see it.
Now this leads me to the last part, because I’ve written a book called “The Precariat Charter”. It stemmed from a discussion I had with Noam Chomsky. Noam Chomsky contacted me and wanted to endorse the first book and say nice things. And it made me think that 2015, last year, was the 800th anniversary of the founding document of our constitution. It only became the Magna Carta in 1217 but The Magna Carta can be interpreted as the first class-based set of demands made against the state. That’s what it was. And I said to myself, on the 800th anniversary, what would a precariat Magna Carta look like? And how would it differ from a proletariat Magna Carta had there been one in 1950? Now it’s an interesting exercise – you have to have a certain amount of conceit to try it –but I’m sure the charter that you would write, any of you, from the perspective of seeing the precariat, would differ in certain respects. My charter has 29 articles, which is modest by comparison with the Magna Carta which has 63. And, essentially, it is about saying how do we revive the enlightenment, revive a sense of future that the neoliberals deny use because they’re only interested in consumption and labour. And you go back to some of the great spirits of our subject matter. My most fond intellectual mentor is William Morris. And William Morris in the late 19th century espoused the values of work, of creativity, of ontological development, of developing oneself through one’s work and leisure. The mingling of the two. Treating the others as necessary but not as fundamental. The idea of strengthening the values of work and enabling us in a situation, a context, to be in control.
So I asked “what would the precariat want to see redistributed?” Because every vision of a good society believes in the redistribution of something. The old proletariat wanted the redistribution of the means of production. If I talk to a precariat meeting about that, they’ll all laugh and go for the nearest bar to drink some strong drink. Right? But what are the assets that the precariat aspire to have redistributed? The first is security. Contrary to that (addressing Lukáš Kovanda, the first speaker at the conference, who had opposed basic income), and I appreciate where you’re coming from, security is what gives us the possibility of developing ourselves. There’s a lot of good psychological research recently, for example, that people who have security, their IQs, their short-term intellectual capacities, go up. If they lose that security it goes down in a big way. So security needs to be redistributed because it’s the most unequal thing of the moment. If you’re up here in the salariat or the elite you have total security. If you’re down in the precariat you have none. So we need a strategy to give people basic security. Not total security- that induces other things – but basic security.
The second asset – that every time I mention it in a precariat group, got a lot of nods – the second key asset is time, control over time; a sense in which I can decide on how to allocate my time.
The third, which is very crucial and is underestimated, is quality space. The whole neoliberal dystopia that’s unfolding believes in the privatisation, the commodification of the commons. Taking away the commons. Privatising it. Urban, rural, social, education commons; unless they make profits they don’t have value so we privatise them. There are large parts of London and other cities today, which have been privatised and we don’t have the rights to use them. That’s only an example. We need a strategy for the reviving and recapturing the commons.
The fourth asset – again the precariat understand this – is we need a strategy for the decommodification of education. Education has been turned into an industry to churn out human capital. I’m an economist so I know wat these things mean, but it’s an alienating concept. The education system was meant to liberate us. The education system is meant to prepare us for philia, for civics, for involvement in society as citizens, to participate in what the Greeks called thorubus, the creative activities. Call it work, call it leisure, but it’s what we need as public citizens. We need a strategy to decommodify education because at the moment the elite are still getting their lovely education with philosophy, art, creativity, philosophy, history. The precariat is being prepared for the labour market. The alienated nature of it – I’m stressing it because I want to stress the tendencies – is very strong.
And finally we need a strategy for the redistribution of capital.
Now that leads not to the charter because I don’t have time to go through it, but I want to lend my remarks on basic income…”
You can read the second part of the transcript here.