Thursday, 19 September 2013

Recomposing precarity: Notes on the laboured politics of class composition

I have an article about precarity and class composition in the new issue of ephemera. Largely it's a book review, focusing on The Precariat by Guy Standing and Precarious Liberation by Franco Barchiesi - although there is a more general consideration of precocity, and in particular its ambivalent nature as a concept.

I'll paste in below some of the thoughts that finish off the article and relate to how precarity as a concept fits within the history of autonomism, as well as the risks and benefits of the sociology-ification of strategic political concepts. This is something that I want to come back and think through more.

Perhaps rather than asking the question of what precarity is it is more useful to ask what precarity does, which is to say, what does precarity add to political analysis and strategy? This is a useful perspective precisely because it points to the reality that precarity is not one thing, but rather a versatile concept that has been deployed differently in varying situations and contexts. To compare the few examples discussed thus far, first we looked at precarity as a way to frame the desires of young workers in 1970s Italy to escape the factory and the constraints of regular wage labour: precarity as something beautiful and worth celebrating. In this framing precarity is the common ground of those who reject the Fordist compromise for a different conception of politics, life, and labour. By the time the concept reappears in the discourse of movements arising in the wake of the anti-globalisation movement, precarity is understood far differently, not as something to be celebrated but as a conceptual framework for theorising the shared ravages of neoliberalism across varying position of status, and income. Precarity is used to find a common ground for the positions of migrant workers and freelancers, with all problems that go along with such a proposition. Standing takes up precarity as a way to refocus labour politics upon populations ignored by only focusing on wage labour and unions, and to bring those stuck in more precarious positions into a common political project. Standing seeks to draw upon the energies of ‘primitive rebellion’ to rebuild a new institutional context for politics. Finally, Barchiesi rethinks the question of precarity within the context and complexity of the politics of national liberation in South Africa, in particular how they are rooted in a conception of work undercut by the growing precarisation of work. While each of these perspectives has its value, I’d suggest that Barchiesi’s work is the most profound, precisely because it tries to employ precarity not as a category to be applied, but rather as a moment of instability within the radical political imagination that is as much promise as threat. The precariat might indeed be the new dangerous class, but that could very well be part of its political potential rather being a danger. In each of these cases what we see is the tension between precarity as a sociological and as a strategic and political concept.

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter in their (2008) analysis provide a very useful insight into the politics of precarity and the ambivalence existing within precarity as political focus and analytic category. They declare the last thing they want to do is to ‘sociologise precarity’, to render into a concept that can be applied to map out the changing nature of class. In short, they are arguing against the use of precarity as a concept in the way that Standing seeks to develop it as concept, one that assess the current shape of labour and develop a new politics around this class formation. That is not to totally reject empirical approaches, which Neilson and Rossiter agree can be of assistance in identifying different types and experiences of precarity. But they argue that while this work can be a prelude to political organization, it is in itself not enough to generate a political intervention adequate to the challenges of the current situation. Rather than precarity as a concept to be applied, Neilson and Rossiter argue for a conception of precarity that cannot be grounded. For them precarity is not an empirical object but rather an experience, one that is best investigated through a ‘transpositional movement between the theoretical and the practical’ – a transversal movement that is never stable (2008: 63).

This in part explains why Neilson and Rossiter comment that the decline of precarity as a political focus connects to its rise as an academic area of investigation. It is not simply a comment on how academic work lags woefully years behind the pace of political developments and thus can only serve to pick up the pieces of social movement developments after they have subsided (although there is something to be said for that). Rather it is that the approaches employed in investigating precarity have entirely different ways of working. Or to express it in their framing, the investigation of precarity as a sociological phenomenon wants to fix it as a category that can be used for empirical work. While this fixing of the category, the agreement over what the concept is, can seem entirely reasonable on a certain level, this represents a kind of blocking of the transversal and transpositional moment that they argue is what was valuable in precarity as a political concept. Neilson and Rossiter suggest that precarity still has a critical potential, albeit one that is limited, but a potential that can be realised more by rejecting sociological framings and expectations of analytical and descriptive consistency.

It is in this sense that it is most useful to rethink precarity by connecting it back more closely to the autonomist tradition. That’s not to say that there is some ‘purer essence’ of the concept that is employed by political actors and not by academic writers. That would be to re-install a kind of essentialist theory-praxis divide in political analysis. Rather, what can be seen in the concept of precarity is a kind of tension between analysis and politics that has long existed in the middle of autonomist politics. One can see this in the tradition’s key concepts, such as the paired notions of technical and political composition. The former is used to understand the current composition of capital and workings of the economy including technical skills, knowledge, level of scientific development, and so forth. The latter is the existing political energies and capacities of the working class, or as the notion has been expanded even more broadly, the capacities of political actors in revolt, to transform the world around then. The autonomist tradition is marked heavily by a radical subjectivism that rejects narratives privileging capital’s perspective in explaining and understanding social and economic crisis and transformation.  Perhaps the most important element of the autonomist tradition is to emphasise this radical subjective becoming of political composition over the more traditionally political economic analysis of technical composition – and to privilege it as the basis of analysis and political strategy. But this very privileging of political composition and subjectivity brings along its own difficulties. If applied in a dogmatic and extreme fashion such an approach can lead to grand declarations about new forms of emerging subjectivities and political energies that lack a sufficient connection to the conditions around them. It can become almost a form of prophecy and declaration, unmoored from the composition of the social.

It is this ongoing tension between technical and political composition that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the autonomist concepts, but also their weakness. This is why the multiple meanings and roles of precarity, what it does as a concept, is not a problem of its lack of coherence, but rather an expression of its value. The meaning of precarity is not determined by a set of criteria that define it, and thus can be operationalised as tools of research (or at least solely as them). Rather it is a political tool whose meaning is shaped by the context from which it emerges, the composition of labour and politics in which it is utilised. Precarity is thus beautiful, an escape from the factory, and horrible, in the conditions of intensifying neoliberal globalisation and destruction of social welfare programs. It is like Walt Whitman, large, containing multitudes, and possibly contained by multitudes. Precarity is most useful not as a concept for mapping out new class categories for integrating them into a new institutional politics, but as a tool for intervening in the shaping of new struggles. Precarity is not just a question of the changing composition of labour, but of experimenting with modes of being and community that are not determined by labour. The task then for the politics of precarity today is not to refine it as a sociological concept to be applied in research but to renew it as a compositional project for the development of new forms of autonomy.

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