The concept of precarity first emerged in French sociology and economics. In the concept’s initial articulations during the 1970s, précarité described a social condition linked to poverty, that only later came to refer to ‘new’ employment forms of precarious work outside of the classic Fordist version of full-time permanent contracts (Barbier 2002). From the early 2000s onwards, the idea of precarisation emerged, understood as a societal process of increasingly insecure employment and generalised uncertainty. This analysis can be mapped to contemporaneous European literature on social exclusion (Barbier 2002), but also, as Munck argues (Munck 2013), to debates further afield about the allied concepts of marginality and the informal sector (cf Bauman 2013; Day et al. 1999; De Genova 2002; Sassen 2014). From there, précarité became a ‘political proposition’(Casas-Cortès 2017), and with its linked notion of the precariat was used by European activists in the EuroMayDay protests of 2001–6, to describe the condition of labour after the roll back of the welfare state, with a special focus on the proliferation of immaterial and intermittent labour, the mobility of labour, and the ways that capital extracts value from labour well beyond the wage relation (Casas-Cortès 2017).
In an article published in 2008, Neilson and Rossiter claimed that this movement of ‘the precariat’ ran out of steam politically, mostly because of its grounding in a specifically Northern European sense of loss of the Fordist promise of secure employment with allied benefits and the safety net of the welfare state for those who fell out of that social contract (2008). They are not alone in pointing out that the Fordist heyday of the 1940s–1970s (the so-called trentes glorieuses in France) must be seen as the exception rather than the norm even in Europe (e.g. Piketty 2014). As the EuroMayDay protests lost their momentum, and ultimately transformed into the Indignados, 15 M, Occupy, nuits debouts, and other movements, academic interest in precarity grew (Neilson and Rossiter 2008). This was prompted especially by the intervention of Guy Standing (2011), who drew on activist analyses to develop his version of the precariat and propose it as ‘the new dangerous class’, a political subject akin to the proletariat or multitude (Hardt and Negri 2005), characterised by lack of labour security including stable work-based identity.
Standing argued that the precariat is ‘a class-in-the-making’, but not yet a class-for-itself; and that its members display ‘anomie, anger, anxiety, and alienation’ in the face of contemporary politics. His argument provoked critiques from those who disagreed with the claim that the precariat was a social class (Breman 2013; Munck 2013), even if the phenomena did describe a series of contemporary labour regimes in specific places (Breman 2013). Critics also noted that the precariat concept did not have quite the global applicability that Standing claimed, precisely because of its reliance upon a European model of labour norms. As Munck (2013) argues, ‘from a Southern perspective, work has always-already been precarious’, a point that we return to below. Standing (2014) responded to these claims, by specifying that not all workers in the ‘informal sector’ could be considered part of the precariat. However, in doing so, he nonetheless demonstrated that the imagined constituent of the precariat concept was indeed mostly the European subject of the précarité social movements; the highly educated young people denied the future that they had come to expect based on their parents’ experience of the Fordist social compact. Still, the naming of precarious work as a political problem in this way is nonetheless fruitful for a consideration of the relation between global political economy, everyday life, South-North and South-South comparisons, and the constitution of political subjects, as the articles in this special issue show.
Meanwhile, Judith Butler’s (2016) interventions in the French debate about précarité took the concept in a slightly different direction to that proposed by scholars of labour and economy. She argued that the precariousness of life ‘implies living socially’, that is to say depending on others and having obligations to them, while precarity is the political process of differentially inducing precariousness, especially in the form of vulnerability to state violence. Thus, ‘precarity designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.’ This is a kind of necropolitics (Mbembe 2003) where some populations are made more grievable than others. The vulnerable subjects that Butler has in mind range from the victims of the US-led ‘War on Terror’, to Palestinians in Gaza, and transgender victims of violence on the streets of Brazil.
Mediating between these potentially conflictual approaches, Anne Allison’s work brought the two conceptions of precarity together, by linking increased instability of labour with anxieties about a ‘relationless society’ in contemporary Japan, to describe the condition of irregular workers as one of ‘a state of desperation, of panic over debt collectors and rent, a life lived on the edge.’ (2013: 6). The effects of neoliberal globalism have led, she argues, to a psychic condition of insecurity, uncertainty, and the failure of everyday life, exemplified in stories of people left to starve to death because they had no work and no one to check up on them. Such an approach echoes earlier attention in North American sociology to the relationship between urban marginality, bodily vulnerability (Klinenberg 2001), and the psychology of ‘desolation’ (Wacquant 2010).
Both these conceptions of precariousness and precarity describe global processes, albeit largely from the perspective of the global North. They have in common an emphasis on secure waged labour for everyone as the object of desire, and its loss without the protection of the welfare state (or other kinds of social welfare) as a prompt for the anxiety that comes from uncertainty (Muehlebach and Shoshan 2012; Mole 2010). Yet in large parts of the global South, neither the welfare state nor secure waged labour has ever been widespread enough to constitute such normative objects of desire.
In their critiques of Standing, both Munck and Breman pointed out that work in the global South has ‘always-already’ been precarious (Breman 2013; Ferguson 2015; Munck 2013). This is a point recognised in the language of analyses of ‘informal’ economies from the early 1970s onwards (Hart 1973; Peattie 1987), or Michael Denning’s (2010) concept of ‘wageless life’ to describe life in cities across post-colonial states (see also the discussion in Ferguson 2015). As Denning suggests, ‘capitalism begins not with the offer of work but with the imperative to earn a living’, and that happens in multiple ways; not all of which include a wage relation. People sell goods on the streets, stitch garments for piece rates, borrow money, live from cash or food transfers from governments and NGOs, and so on. Of course, they also make bricks, labour in others’ fields, mine metals, carry goods, build offices, dig roads, clean houses, tend gardens, etc., for day rates; or live from the salary earned by the one member of their household with a government job (whether short term or permanent). So, their lives are not necessarily entirely wage-free, but nor are they characterised by the model of a secure male wage that could support a whole family—a model that was of course only available to a select few in the North anyway.
Denning’s call to ‘decentre wage labor in our conception of life under capitalism’ (2010) is well phrased, but does echo a feminist argument that has been made since at least the 1970s. Multiple scholars and activists have pointed out the role of housework in the reproduction of life and labour power (Federici 2008). They argued that female labour in the house is necessary to produce and service workers for factories, offices, streets and so on; and as such, it subsidises the wages paid to the (male) workers, and therefore the profits for capital. Meanwhile dominant ‘workerist’ ideologies grant normative moral power to hegemonic forms of waged labour and the nuclear family (Weeks 2011). Making the payment for work—and working conditions themselves—as ‘flexible’ and precarious as possible has created a highly efficient regime of accumulation enforced by governments from colonial times, becoming even more acute since the 1980s under the latest phase of global neoliberalism. For example, structural adjustment programmes in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America consolidated landholding in rural areas in the hands of agribusinesses, prompting mass migration to cities (Davis 2004; Federici 2012); once more or less settled in peripheral city neighbourhoods, workers became available to work for low pay and to invest their labour power in autoconstruction of their houses and neighbourhoods, and in caring for relatives in the absence of state social or health care provision, etc. Globally, deregulation has meant an expansion of the global labour supply, allowing capital to move where labour is cheapest, while national governments have enforced measures of labour flexibility that enable precarious conditions—from the suppression of unions and the right to strike, to the development of special economic zones, to the maintenance of migrant illegality and consequent vulnerability to exploitation (Breman 2013; de Genova 2005; Federici 2012; Schierup and Bak Jorgensen 2017).
In the midst of these global and national processes, ordinary people focus on making a living, or ‘sustaining life across generations’ in Narotsky and Besnier’s terms (2014: S6). The strategies by which they do so include ‘relations of trust and care, economies of affect, networks of reciprocity encompassing both tangible and intangible resources, and material and emotional transfers that are supported by moral obligations’. They often evade regulation, either deliberately or because they cannot be regulated, and they are focussed on ‘how to make life worth living, … [an] effort to make life’. Here, Narotsky and Besnier signal an analysis that focusses on people’s creativity, and it is this sensibility that the articles in this issue bring to our analysis of the politics of precarious work.Footnote 1
We do so because most of the authors discussed so far in this section have taken a fairly bleak outlook on the political possibilities arising out of precarious work and life. Standing argues that the precariat, although potentially dangerous, has yet to fulfil that promise and is in general anomic and apolitical. The more cultural descriptions of precarity often describe a kind of paralysis induced by uncertainty and the challenges of survival (Allison 2013), or the overwhelming power of state violence against precarious populations (Butler 2016). Ferguson (2015) is more positive, but sees the only possible politics for those who can no longer get access to waged employment as one of state-led distribution of welfare. With few exceptions (Munck 2013; Waterman 1993), most scholars agree that traditional labour organisations cannot or will not represent precarious workers—in North or South. It seems that they do not speak to these kinds of workers, and even often exclude them to protect the high(er) wages of their constituency of labour aristocrats, as Parry argues for the case of the steel plant in Bhilai, India (Parry 2013).
Yet, the marginality debates of the 1970s had viewed the urban poor as apolitical in a similar fashion (Perlman 1976). However, that was fairly quickly critiqued as scholars soon highlighted the multiple political strategies of the urban poor albeit mostly ignoring labour politics (see the following for recent articulations of this approach Bayat 2015; Caldeira 2015; Maskovsky 2018). The urban poor were understood to engage in infrastructural or service politics, like campaigns for property legalisation, or neighbourhood utilities as well as just self-government (Chatterjee 2006; Lazar 2008). Scholars recognised in particular women’s political activities associated with social reproduction and urban living, like mothers clubs, communal kitchens, advocacy for urban services and utilities, etc.
But what do the men do (as workers and as residents of urban neighbourhoods)? And, what do the women do when they are workers? The vision of ‘traditional organised labour’ as irrelevant to the contemporary situation of precarious workers participates in the same kind of post-Fordist perspective characteristic of the precarity debate. It displays a nostalgia for a time when strong unions protected the wage relation, as if it were only those kinds of unions that can serve as the model for labour politics. In fact, as this special issue shows, there are multiple possibilities for a collective politics of labour, even in highly precarious situations. From ‘traditional’ unions reaching out to contract workers to other forms of collective association based on kinship, village of birth, or common workplace, precarious workers do collaborate to improve the conditions under which they make their living. Documenting the variety of these is one of the objectives of this collection.