Sure, working conditions today cannot be compared with those of the 1800s, but it is surely worthwhile to have a closer look at the overall shift that is going on in our societies. This had been topic of my recent presentation
Precarity – An Issue of Changed Labour Market and Employment Patterns or of Changed Social Security Systems?
during the EuroMemo-meeting in London.
The problem is indeed that we are facing a crisis that is going much beyond the economic crisis. It is a systemic crisis in the true meaning – and as such it is also a crisis of and for the ruling class. Coming from here, the question is not primarily one that looks for the relevant actors today. nor is it primarily a matter of simple-to-provide policy recommendations – the latter easily looking at an exit of the crisis instead of being serious about overcoming of permanently reoccurring crises.
We should not forget that capitalism is fundamentally and permanently characterised by unemployment though this takes very different forms, of course. These are not least characterised by cyclical movements.
What is then new about precarity?
We may have a look at the very general pattern of societal development which is characterised by a movement towards inclusion. However, this secular process (inclusion as matter of increasing appropriation of the “external nature” by human being) is going hand in hand with avower-related division.
Moving away from the philosophical perspective and looking at the economic side of it we find an interesting development, now looking only at the development that characterises capitalism/industrialism: a first movement is best characterised as rationalisation: reducing the variable part of capital in favour of the constant part of capital, and namely the part of the fixed capital. With the further development of capitalist production – and that means as well: the further development of the means of production, we find a more or less fundamental change of the process of realisation: as much as financialisation means that part of the capital is realising itself outside (and seemingly independent) of the process of production we see that labour and work are somewhat merging – at least the borders are blurring. In other words: at this stage they are actually not pushed back within the process of realisation by rationalisation. Instead labour is pushed to an area that is outside of the process of realisation. It deserves empirical investigation if this is actually going hand in hand with another change of the structure of capital, namely a decrease of the fixed capital in favour of an increase of the circulating capital – looking at anecdotal evidence the movement is contradicting.
A surely dangerous development as long as the system of gaining and maintaining material resources is still based on the traditional patterns of life-long full-time employment. With relevant policy development s it may also be an opportunity in the course of moving beyond the fetters of the capitalist mode of production. A further question is then in the wider historical perspective if and in which way we can actually refer to a permanently extension of the process of realisation. Putting the question in a different way we reach with the changed mode of production the challenge to turn away from a pattern of exponential growth, moving at least towards considering different perspectives on the objectives of the economy of (global) society (see in this context also Herrmann, Peter, 2013: Methodological considerations for a Theory of Social Policy/Social Policy Research at the Interface of Political Economy and Politics of Social Order: 13f).
Obviously, policy challenges arise for the areas employment, taxation and income, social security and societal policies. And they have to be consider both, system-conform and also system-transcending options.
Related reflections can be found in the working paper here – an earlier version had been replaced.