John Harris, in a Guardian review (April 12th) of Guy Standing’s A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (Bloomsbury), finds the beginning of the rot in a typically “visionary” piece of Blairism from 2005, a speech to what one imagines must have been, even at this late date, an at least partially sullen or sceptical Labour conference crowd.
“The character of this changing world,” Tony enthused, “is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” Harris detects an echo here of Marx and Engels’s famous deprecation/celebration of the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto. But what is being created now, according to Guy Standing, is not the proletariat but the precariat, a great and ever-growing “mass of people … who enjoy almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the twentieth century”.
Standing sees this development as having certain implications for traditional “labourist” politics and trade unionism: “While proletarian consciousness is linked to long-term security in a firm, mine, factory or office, the precariat’s consciousness is linked to a search for security outside the workplace.” But does “the precariat” actually have a consciousness? It was possible, in previous eras, to organise craft workers, then general workers, then service workers, then (one of the more complete successes) white collar workers in public service. How is it going to be possible to organised the precariously employed who have little bargaining power, are vulnerable to bullying and who – in many cases – have been abandoned by trade unions (in Ireland often pursuing the chimera of “partnership” with employers)?
Standing would appear to be something of a romantic, believing that the precariat will organise itself ‑ wait for it, in the spirit of ’68 (ça suffit!), indeed that it is already doing so, through “the potential of electronic communications” of course (just like the Arab Spring). “On this point,” Harris writes, “he gets carried away, giving far too much credit to the inchoate Occupy spasm of 2011, and projecting on the English riots of 2011 a political motivation that simply wasn’t there.” And yet Harris praises the book as a whole for being “that rare thing: a text from the left that does not yearn for a lost past”. The “lost past” which will not be rediscovered is presumably that fairly recent (pre-Thatcher) one in which capitalism was not insolent in its power and its prerogatives and whims did not override every other consideration in society. Harris commends “a progressive politics [that refuses to] surrender to economic practices as if they were forces of nature”. This sounds about right, at least in intent (practice may be more difficult), but it also sounds remarkably like a politics based on the values that sustained European social democracy for all those not unsuccessful decades pre-Tony. And perhaps a politics still largely based on traditional models (party and trade union, but with more attempt to put in place international, in the first instance European, coordination of a renewed charter of rights; and let us never again see a social democratic party leader who uses “unforgiving of frailty” as a term of praise). Why we need not expect anything very much from the “new” radical politics is amply illustrated by most of the 135 comments underneath John Harris’s review.