No Work, instead of Precarious Work

After the fall of the New Economy, flexibility, individualization and outsourcing are obviously threats, not promises and mean nothing but poverty and precarious working conditions

deutsche Version

Jungle World 28/2004

Karl-Heinz Lewed

The ideologists of the modern service society do not paint the future this way: work pressure without security, exploitation in niche enterprises, contract work with obscure mediation agencies, low wages for service workers and personal agencies as a forced instrument of work administration. After the fall of the New Economy, flexibility, individualization and outsourcing are obviously threats, not promises and mean nothing for the majority but poverty and precarious working conditions. Employees in the poverty-service area are not the only ones affected by the massive lowering of social standards. As everybody knows, this tendency extends to the whole society in western metropolises. No one speaks any more of the periphery. In some employment segments, deregulation, low wages and precarization dominate as in the cleaning and catering trades, domestic servants or caring for seniors. Employing migrants in these areas under the most miserable conditions without any legal or contract security is not an accident.

Protest is increasingly raised against these unreasonable working- and living conditions. The congress “Cost Factors Rebel” in Dortmund, is one example. “Bringing together political groups for controversial debates and developing strategic starting points” were the declared intentions of the congress. Despite or because of the necessity of immediate practical resistance, defining the theoretical and practical reference fields of the protest and the “enemy” were important. In the conceptual horizon of the leftist class-consciousness, precarization appears as a result of the “combative relation between the classes.” The problem of precarious employment cannot really be grasped this way. Precarization refers to a social-economic development in which work in itself became precarious, not only certain working conditions. The crisis process undermining the foundation of capitalist exploitation goes along with intensified exclusion and social disintegration.

One manifestation of this crisis is that the demand for marketable workers in the core industrial sectors continuously declines as a consequence of the enormous development of productive power since the 1970s. At the same time the service sector can in no case offer the longed-for job perspective. On the contrary, the poverty world of modern services is a subordinate sphere that requires a diminishing number of productive workers. This sector does not represent the transition to a new model of capitalist accumulation but offers a pseudo-perspective to those falling to the precarious material level. In the sense of capitalist irresponsibility for the labor- and human material that is not commercialized, the superfluous should seek their miserable survival in personal companies, personal agencies, childcare, housekeeping or simply shining shoes. State support at the poverty level is joined with the pressure of constant work readiness.

Beside the formation of precarious service areas in metropolises, the aspect of migration points to another plane of the disintegration of the system of abstract labor. The global extension of capitalism to the periphery never led to a comprehensive integration of workers. The state-induced “catch-up modernization” usually remained at a relatively low level. Since the 1970s, the situation has intensified as countries increasingly fall in the globally oriented competition under the wheel of the world market. Whole subcontinents like Africa south of the Sahara are practically excluded from the global wealth creation. This exclusion of a large part of the world population is the central background for migration movements. Migrants are now encountering radical changes in the metropolises.

After the end of the Fordist expansion in the 1950s and 1960s with its brisk need for workers and the swelling of international work migrants into metropolitan regions, a rationalizing policy began sanctioning exclusion. A little well-trained cadre of high-tech workers could close the possible gaps in the highly productive wealth creation. Increasingly restrictive immigration rules were enforced in Europe and the US since the 1970s and especially since the 1990s. Migration was illegalized in this way. When migrants successfully cross the borders, there is usually only the possibility of finding work in those areas that first arose in the crisis process: in the precarious niches of the service sector.

One could speak of different stages of exclusion. Migrants move out of the collapsing regions of the world economy into the precariousness of deregulated working conditions of the metropolises. These graduated mechanisms of exclusion are usually joined with the basic principle of the exclusion logic in capitalism: gender hierarchy and racism. If certain activities were always inferior in capitalism and assigned to women or non-whites (for example, housework), the process of precarization intensifies this logic. The disqualification is twofold. Those who fall out economically from the productive exploitation of labor follow structural hierarchical gender and racist patterns. The objective development of economic exclusion is tied with a logic of racist and sexist exclusion.

The attempted resistance through reintegration in the system of work (and law) is a hopeless orientation of leftist policy because this process is the direct result of the obsolescence of the foundation of capitalist commercialization. Therefore a criticism of unreasonable capitalist demands can only prevail when based on a standpoint outside the commodity order. The contradiction must be emphasized that capitalism increases the potentials of wealth production while excluding more and more people from sharing in that wealth. The tendency to reduce socially necessary working hours to the production of goods means constantly reducing the number of those with access to these goods. However for an emancipative initiative, this means a participation in social wealth is only possible beyond labor and money. Material resources must be appropriated directly and the wealth production liberated from the dictation of form. The opposite of precarious and irregular working conditions is not regular conditions but no working conditions.