Talking about Precarity …

Precarity: It is surely in important issue, even if nobody is really sure what it is. There are so many definitions: different in the orientation, different in the reasoning, different in the emphasis and weighing of some aspects and not least different in the exact “mapping” of a complex field, as there are people and groups talking about it.

This is not the most important, though the most secure conclusion from the two meetings over the last week: the one in Berlin, the other in Moscow.


And in some way a side event seemed to mark the corner stone for the debate: a white swan and a black swan, fighting against each other, each of them flaunting and maintaining its own beauty and each of them hardly acknowledging the other – the question is the old one: to be or not to be. The answer is the old one too: there is only space for one or the other. In Swan Lake finally indeed the one only, and it is “the good” in the sense of the white swan, importantly overcoming deception.


Talking about moral is then pointing into the direction that may explain to some extent the underlying problemtique hindering some more radical take on the issue: moral, at least in the post-enlightenment thinking, is “structurally individualist”. After humankind took responsibility from the shoulders of gods, accepting humans’ own responsibility, the problem of definition remained in the vein of a reductionist understanding: not the one god but the one person had to decide. Being seemingly general, social,in fact moral had been welded to the idea of individuals’ ratio, decisively expressed in Kant’s definition of the categorical imperative, and formulated much further in the exploration of law. In his Metaphysics we read in the Introduction into the Doctrine of Right:

Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen bei einem allgemeinen Gesetz der Freiheit vereinigt werden kann.[1]

And we also read:

Man nennt die bloße Übereinstimmung oder Nichtübereinstimmung einer Handlung mit dem Gesetze ohne Rücksicht auf die Triebfeder derselben die Legalität (Gesetzmäßigkeit), diejenige aber, in welcher die Idee der Pflicht aus dem Gesetze zugleich die Triebfeder der Handlung ist, die Moralität (Sittlichkeit) derselben.[2]

All these systems are in actual fact “just” and “legitimate” at least in their own terms, not least as they defined themselves the criteria on the basis of which they allow to be assessed. Here is in my view as well the source for both, the fundamental difficulty of social science to detect the mechanisms behind the processes of valuation and the lack of piety when it comes to “living” certain values. I explored this in a different context, writing

Usual approaches to social policy are characterised by taking some kind of problem as given – so the original idea had been to talk about precarity and poverty. Of course, we can well take at least poverty as a problem and social policy challenge – with precarity it looks a little bit different as it is seemingly a new issue and as such actually not yet defined as policy issue. In any case, there is the danger that we simply replicate structures without considering the underlying societal structures and patterns – this means not least replication without understanding what the actual problem is. In other words, in many cases “looking at the seemingly obvious” means looking for policies of system maintenance.[3]

And one neglected, though hugely important fact is the fundamental continuity and change of the role of the individual – here in particular of interest in the more recent history, namely the two last stages confronted with the question of rightfulness and legitimacy. We can follow Franz Borkenau who highlights the important role played by the individual during the Renaissance and also later in capitalism. It is not that the one era had been more individualist than the other. Important is that

[e]goism of the isolated individual is fundamental for Renaissance AND Reformation. The first sees it in the context of harmonious beauty; not because the life of the time and social stratum had been filled by such beauty – on the contrary –, but because it strives towards a life as landowning money-lenders, following the ideal a balanced aestheticism, standing against the life of ordinary people. Calvinists are nothing else than egoistic individuals, but THEY are, consciously against the ideal or the Renaissance, a life of irrational effort. The financial bourgeoisie profits from this degradation of feudalism; therefore it has to idealise this world.[4]


Coming back to the question of precarity, we can say that a more fundamental and radical understanding can be elaborated if we forget for a moment precarity as point of departure, at least precarity as matter of changing patterns of employment and subsequent patterns of life and living, social structuration and etc.

Let us first ask in what society we are living in. And in order to do that, let us now continue by going another detour, and look at the previous large-scale transformation of society: the overcoming feudalism, and the emergence of capitalism.[5] By and large we can say that feudalism had been characterised by

  • oppression and
  • personal dependence (patronage, clientelism …).

On the other hand, capitalism – or we may better speak of the bourgeois-citizens formation – had been characterised by the claims of

  • freedom of citizens (citoyen & bourgeois) and
  • regulation (the contractual systems determining the relations between rational individuals).

Both, feudalism and capitalism had been “systems”, i.e. complex relational entities. And they had been social entities,

understood as interaction between people and their constructed and natural environment. Its subject matter refers to people’s interrelated productive and reproductive relationships.[6]

More in terms of political economy as social science this is not least concerned with defining the relationship between production, consumption, distribution and exchange.[7]

Looking now at capitalism – fundamentally defined by wage labour as norm(ality) – we can see up to recently, i.e. when looking at “developed capitalism”, the following characteristics:

  • mass production
  • mass consumption
  • nation state
  • colonialism and imperialism as two complementing “external relationships”
  • system competition
  • formal democracy
  • family

All these, in there interplay, merge to the overall alienation – the famous expression, that

the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home[8]

gains a meaning that goes much beyond the sphere of the process of work, also characterising the political sphere, underlying consumerism, coining parts of private life etc.

However, looking at the current era, the 7 factors mentioned as characterising the capitalist system changed in one way or another – and in some more or less fundamental way – only short remarks have to do suffice.[9]

1) Mass Production

At least we have to see that mass production changed its face by continuing on a level that changed in two respects: one point in question is the degree of rationalisation and automatisation that characterises many areas (notwithstanding the fact that simple repetitive work is still undertaken as manual labour); another point is about the “variability of products” – though being produced as mass products, we find in many areas possibilities that within this framework the production can answer “individual wants” of customers.

2) Mass Consumption

Here we face the manifest contradiction between consumerism on the one hand and the increasing individualised consumer emerging from here. Though being manifest, the individualisation undermines the conscious tackling of the contradiction. – Looking at mass production and mass consumption together, one of the paradoxes is the fact that the chain between consumer/customer and product is lengthened to an extent that it  escapes completely control (evidenced for instance by the length of transport; the virtualisation of ordering, production, and even consumption …) but with this the direct control is also increasing (evidenced for instance by the access of customers being able to individually “assemble” their products by defining the specification when buying a computer).

3) Nation State

The nation state, without loosing it’s meaning, is at least torn between two forms of “regionalisation”. Taking the EU as example, we see on the one hand the aggregation of national powers and on the other hand movements of reclaiming power of sub-national regions (Scotland, Basque Country etc.). It is an ongoing question where this leaves the nation state. Equally important is the question which role the state actually has in the overall political processes and in the tensional field between the firm constitutional settings of the “state of law” (with its meaning for citizen’s rights but also with the right of the state as sovereign over citizens, territory and the social processes[10]) and private instances taking over sovereign functions. Not least, the systems of ”social support” and welfare provisions are hugely undermined in their traditional functioning.

4) Colonialism and Imperialism as two Complementing “External Relationships”

Though imperialism does in many respects regain force, it takes at the same time new forms, not least as the “one empire” does not exist anymore – and it does not yet exist.[11]

5) System Competition

The “blocks” – be it as contest of socialism and capitalism, be it as “developing” and “developed” countries – do not exist anymore as matters of a simple confrontation.

6) Formal Democracy

Though there is no clear line, moreover as little as concepts are clearly defined, we find from different angles claims into directions that are increasingly contesting the monopoly of formal democracy: catchwords as governance, direct democracy, area-related democracy (be it local, be it concerned with specific fields or issues: in the workplace, environmental democracy …) etc. . Important is also that the acceptance of such claims is more and more general, the alternative emerging as mainstream.

7) Family

Notwithstanding the ongoing meaning of “family” there are different moments pointing into the direction of dissolutions: this may be indicated by the increasing number of singles, lone parents, different forms of cohabitation; and this can also be indicated by “family” as stable relationship of a couple (with or without children) taking different forms (in the extreme the commuting marriage, i.e. partners living in different continents and seeing in regular intervals in different places). Again, this has huge implications for the systems of welfare and social support.

Taking all this together, means that we find a different relationing of production, consumption, distribution and exchange. The emphasis of financialisation as major characteristic of current capitalism falls short of capturing the change in a holistic way: we have to consider both, the mode of production and the increasing meaning of consumption and exchange, developing some dominance over production and distribution; and in addition we have to develop an understanding of the interplay between them.

Also alienation takes a new form: the known pattern of the worker feeling

at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home,[12]

is now replaced by the market citizen who feels at home when he left the dwelling and being settled in the dwelling, does not feel at home.


One of the decisive overall results of the process has to be seen in the fact of a ne accumulation regime that is surely still based in production; however, it is at the very same time increasingly “annexed” as profitability is further detached from the production of use value. As much as it had been always the case that capitalism prioritised exchange value, use value only being a necessary though not sufficient condition as much we face now a shift characterised by use value itself now being changed: many commodities are themselves increasingly “intermediaries”.

Another decisive moment can be seen in the fact of an increasing meaning of consumption as mechanism of socialisation (thought the opposite is equally true). For allowing an understanding we may first refer to the fact that classically the realisation of “value” is only happening ex ante, on the market: a product (commodity) has to be sold and only then the invested labour is acknowledged. It requires the sale of the result of labour that acknowledges the value, i.e. the socially defined useful labour.[13] But here exchange of commodities, the determination of “value” (i.e. the value of the invested work) and use value (as matter of consumption) are immediately interwoven. Looking at the current era we find a shift where this chain cannot be taken for granted as hegemonic pattern. The (surely questionable) supply-demand relationship as mechanism of “determining value” is now in some way turned around: demand is defining and determining in some way demand;[14] and production is also increasingly defining and determining production.[15]

This will not be further explored. Still one important issue has to be raised – at least as outline for further questioning the society in which we are (going to) live. As a general outline of historical development we may refer to the following stages

  • equality and subordination under nature
  • power and exclusion in slave societies
  • privilege
  • property
  • sovereignty[16]

By and large this is at this stage an open field, allowing development into different directions. But as much as economic processes are defined by political decisions and struggles between different social interests, the opportunity for a fundamental change, going beyond the borders of an accumulation regime founded in commodity production in the strict sense.


Not yet a week passed by, standing at the Paul’s Cathedral in Frankfurt/M., discussing labour market issues, green growth and regional labour market monitoring the question is of course obvious: Are we facing a new “Westphalian Peace”, different forms of nation states emerging as it happened in Muenster and Osnabrueck in 1648; is the current situation simply about a new structure of political governance of a small elite as the citoyens that gathered in 1849 as first publicly and freely-elected German legislative institution, backing the final breakthrough of capitalism; or is there an opportunity to make people’s sovereignty in a fundamental sense possible, allowing everybody as social being to control the conditions of production and reproduction of everyday’s life?

May be the deliberations during the EUROMEMO-workshop, starting on Thursday in Rome, could shed some more light on relevant issues, overcoming the call for a radical change of economic processes in favour of a radical change of the economy.


[1] Epitome of the conditions, under which one’s arbitrariness can be united in a general law of freedom with the arbitrariness of somebody else.

[2] The pure compliance or non-compliance between an act and the law, without considering its incitement, is called legality (Legalitaet [Gesetzmaessigkeit]); but that, where the idea of the obligation of the law is also the incitement of the act, is called its morality (Sittlichkeit).

[3] Herrmann, Peter, 2014: Social Policy – Production rather than Distribution; Bremen/Oxford: EHV

[4] Borkenau, Franz, 1932: Der Uebergang von Feudalen zum buegerlichen Weltbild. Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie der Manufakturperiode; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971: 160

[5] This implies that we are currently witnessing a fundamental shift, a revolutionary development – if we can and have to speak of overcoming capitalism is difficult to say – perhaps the difficulty is here that the terms capitalism and socialism are somewhat misleading (I am well aware of the fact that this is a statement that can easily be misinterpreted).

[6] van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan, 2012: Social Quality and Sustainability; in: van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan [eds.]: Social Quality. From Theory to Indicators: Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 250-274, here: 260

[7] see the elaboration in Marx, Karl, 1857: Outline of the Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse) There we read (passim)

(1) Immediate identity: Production is consumption, consumption is production. Consumptive production. Productive consumption. …

(2) [In the sense] that one appears as a means for the other, is mediated by the other: this is expressed as their mutual dependence; a movement which relates them to one another, makes them appear indispensable to one another, but still leaves them external to each other. …

(3) … also, each of them, apart from being immediately the other, and apart from mediating the other, in addition to this creates the other in completing itself, and creates itself as the other. Consumption accomplishes the act of production only in completing the product as product by dissolving it, by consuming its independently material form, by raising the inclination developed in the first act of production, through the need for repetition, to its finished form; it is thus not only the concluding act in which the product becomes product, but also that in which the producer becomes producer. On the other side, production produces consumption by creating the specific manner of consumption; and, further, by creating the stimulus of consumption, the ability to consume, as a need.


[8]            Marx, Karl, 1844: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

[9] This can be contested. However, any contestation should consider two points: (i) looking at the persistence and renaissance of some principles and processes (some trends to very conservative family interpretations among young people, the emphasis of claiming formal democracy, indeed the mass consumption in form of consumerism etc.) is probably not least a confirmation of the thesis of their dissolution, motivating people to look for alleged securities of “known” patterns; (ii) the suggested changes are not least understood as trends of which the coming into practice cannot be anything else than a matter of contradictory processes.

[10] This is about politics and policies of social order and also the control of the national economy as “ideal total capitalist”.

[11]            Further discussion is needed of the proposal by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000): Empire; Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press

[12]            Marx, Karl, 1844: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

[13]            See Marx’ presentation n the first chapter of the first volume of Capital.

[14] for instance the demand of “cheap services” increases the demand of additional services – low fare flights increasing the transport from and to airports, in general and to airports that are distant from well connected centres

[15] for instance the “interplay” between chip production and software production in the IT-industry

[16] In part with reference to a letter written by Polanyi to Robert Schlesinger, quoted in Polanyi-Levitt, 2006: Tracing Karl Polanyi’s Institutional Political Economy to its Central European Source; in: Polanyi-Levitt, Kari/McRobbie, Kenneth [eds.]: Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The Contemporary Significance of The Great Transformation; Montreal et altera: Black Rose Books: 378-391: here: 381; see also already: Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Justice as a Question of Politics – Justice as a Question of Economics; in: Laurinkari, Juhani/Tarvainen, Merja (eds.): N.N.



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