Precariousness is quite simply the condition of the working class under capitalism…
Photograph by massimo ankor
From Radical Philosophy:
The terms ‘precarity’ and its derivation, ‘precariat’/precariato gained notoriety after the 2001 Euro May Day parade when a network of casual workers, students, migrants, feminists, LGBT activists and radical theorists gathered under the insignia of San Precario. The terms were first conceived in the context of the transformation of the Italian labour relations that began in the mid-1980s, during the government of Bettino Craxi, and after the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1991, when the implementation of neoliberal reforms started to dominate the political agenda of the time. As Marcello Tarì and Ilaria Vanni maintain, the history of casualization of previously unionized labour in Italy can be traced back to 1984, when a new legislation (legge 863) legalized part-time contracts; soon afterwards, legge 56, passed in 1987, legitimated the principle of fixed-term contracts. Subsequently, the Treu package (named after the then minister for labour relations under a coalition of centre-left parties) ‘introduced and normalised new typologies of temping, fixed terms, apprenticeships, professional development, and part-time contracts’. These policies were touted as a mark of modernization and presented to the public as necessary measures conceived to open up the Italian labour market to globalization, and as a strategy to reduce unemployment. In reality, the Treu package ‘sanctioned the shift in the job market from continuing contracts to new forms of casualised contracts’. The subsequent Biagi law (named after the labour law professor, and consultant of Berlusconi’s administration, who was assassinated in 2002 by the Red Brigades) of 2003 finally deregulated the labour market in general.
Some autonomous networks of casual workers and migrants therefore conceived the term ‘precarity’ as a means of countering the concept of flexibility. The neoliberal establishment had adopted the concept of flexibility both to conceal the real scope and aims of the reforms of the labour market and to make them more appealing to the public, by resorting to a linguistic gimmick associating the harsh ‘reforms’ with a perceived sense of modernity and innovation. The Italian radical Left thus originally employed the term precariato to expose the reality behind the propaganda, rather than to refer to a social class in anything like Marxian terms. This early use of the term ‘precarity’ was a direct answer to politicians and mainstream neoliberal economists who were praising ‘flexibility’, and a rebuke to the governments of the time, both of centre-right and centre-left, which were gradually dismantling workers’ rights.
Today’s defenders of the concept of precarity, by contrast, tend to emphasize the manner in which recent technological innovations have changed labour relations and ways of working. These theorists argue that the transformation of the labour process, and particularly the advent of ‘immateriality’, has determined a radical change in the nature of labour. Essentially, they claim, whereas Fordist capitalism required a loyal and well-regulated workforce, the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s demanded radical transformations of work and the pursuit of flexible production. However, in keeping with this line of thought, as Bhaskar Sunkara points out, and ‘[o]ddly mirroring the folly of neoliberals, these leftists have swapped the political in favour of the technical’. Precarity, in reality, is not any sort of ‘new’ condition, and not the result of unprecedented post-Fordist transformations of labour and production, but rather a symptom of a return to the pre-Fordist and pre-welfare-state labour conditions.