Last night I went to see Prof Guy Standing (SOAS) talk at Goldsmiths about the precariat – a word I hadn’t heard in 2011,* and which is now one of our most useful analytical tools for understanding the lived impacts of inequality and poverty. This is not just poverty of money – but of security, time, space, capital, education, and (financial) advice. One possible way of distinguishing the precariat from the (ever diminishing) traditional working-class is perhaps that the precariat are exploited all the time, not just at work as part of an industrial time regime – the lack of secure and consistent employment means more time is taken up by employment matters. It was a while since I’d attended an open academic lecture, Christmas and marking having taken over somewhat, but it was a joyous and very emotional evening for several reasons.
Firstly, it was standing room only (at least I amuse myself). A room suitable for 40 people had about 80 rammed inside, on window ledges, on the floor, behind the speaker. As someone who has experienced a term of asking the eternal question ‘how do we get our students to go the extra-curricular things?’ it was a revelation. A great, multi-national, multi-ethnic, cross discipline, varied mix of career stages were in attendance, hanging on every word it seemed.
Standing’s talk drew mainly on his recent book The Precariat Charter, a list of demands reminiscent of the Magna Carta (800 years after its agreement at Runnymede); demands for the precariat in order to ease the distasteful and violent things being done to this social group in the name of economic liberty and neoliberalism. While I’m going to type up my notes from the talk, and interweave them into several lectures and journal papers over the coming weeks, two things I want to highlight.
Standing’s number one point (for which he says he has been criticised, for being a bit dull) is: to reconceptualise what we mean as work. This obviously ties into well-worn debates from Jeremy Rifkin, but also the excellent Sociological Review monograph on the issue. We (or vindictive, sanctioning policy makers) have become obsessed with paid labour for a boss as the only meaningful work, leaving out all the other labour that people do. Chief among these in my view would be formal volunteering, and informal caring, alongside housework. The NHS is saved £119bn a year by 6 million carers – more than the NHS budget. It’s time to stop thinking that this doesn’t count as work, and consider rewarding it as such, or at least lessening the hardship that loving one another can cause. Alongside these Standing suggests form filling, the endless loops people who don’t have consistent employment have to jump through, causing the mental exhaustion and stress, and fawning and pleading one has to do in order to continue to exist as a member of the precariat.
His solution? A state-guaranteed national income. I used the word ’emotional’ to describe the talk earlier. Well, Standing recounted two stories from his applied research /activism. His work in villages in India and Namibia to test in pilot schemes a basic income, paid in cash to every man, woman, and child in the villages. The results of these pilots – discussed with colleagues in his forthcoming book Basic Income – more work, more productivity, more community, and a better status for women. In Namibia, where poor women would be victims after men were paid on Friday nights after work, the basic income changed their world. “We can say No,” one told Standing – a decent income leading to a decent life.
There was no evidence that a guaranteed income created fecklessness or laziness, the argument used to stop it here. This isn’t just a Global South solution – Alaska (conservative, Palin-world) is using fossil fuel revenues to do the same – and has gone from having among the highest levels of poverty in the US to among the lowest.
I took seven pages of dense notes and quotes in a little over an hour. But the thing I will take away from it? A team of academics, going to some of the poorest parts of the world, to suggest, help implement, test, and disseminate a relatively simple social policy, in order to improve lives? That’s pretty emotional (and creates both guilt [over my own measly contribution] and belief [that hope springs eternal]).
*Interestingly, I’ve just had to add the word ‘precariat’ to my Word dictionary. It won’t be missing from new editions I’m sure.