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Brave New World of Work: The Political Economy of Insecurity

by Ulrich Beck Thursday, Jun. 17, 2004 at 1:25 PM

"The utopia of the free market has an unintentional upshot: the Brazilianization of the West.. What is most remarkable is the new similarity of development profiles, the incursion of the precarious, intermittent, fluffy and unsanctioned in the Western bulwarks.."



By Ulrich Beck

[This excerpt from Ulrich Beck’s book “Brave New World of Work” (2004) is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.changex.de/d_a01420.html. Ulrich Beck directs the Institute for Sociology at the University of Munich and also has a chair at the London School of Economics. With his books “Risk Society”, “Children of Freedom”, “Brave New World of Work” and “Power and Counter-Power in the Global Age”, he has stimulated public debate again and again.]

[In Brazil, most persons are itinerant sellers, small tradesmen and artisans who hire themselves out as all kinds of domestic servants or “labor nomads” shuttling between different fields of activity, forms of employment and training. There is a great likelihood that we will work this way in the future. Our labor culture adjusts ever more quickly to the “developing countries” according to the well-known sociologist Ulrich Beck.]

The utopia of the free market has an unintentional upshot: the Brazilianization of the West. The most remarkable development of the world of work is not the high unemployment in the states of Europe, the so-called “job wonder” in the US or the transition from the work- to the knowledge society in future information work. What is most remarkable is the new similarity of the development profiles of paid labor in the so-called first and so-called third world, the incursion of the precarious, intermittent, fluffy and unsanctioned in the western bulwarks of the full-employment society. The socio-structural rag rug is spreading to the center of the West, the diversity, confusion and insecurity of the South’s labor-, biographical- and living forms.


In a semi-industrial country such as Brazil, wage and salary earners in formalized full-time work relations only represent a minority of the economically active. Far more people work under precarious working conditions. They are itinerant sellers, small tradesmen and artisans. They hire themselves out as all kinds of domestic help or are “labor nomads” shuttling between different fields of activity, forms of employment and training. This nomadic “multi-activity” – principally a characteristic of women’s work in the West hitherto – is not a “residual pre-modern quantity” but a rapidly spreading development variant of the West’s later labor societies as shown in the development of the “highly developed” full employment societies. Attractive, highly trained and good-paying full-time gainful employment is running out.

The development in Germany reflects the development in other western societies. In the 1960s, a tenth of employees belonged to this group of precarious employees. In the 1970s, it was a fifth, in the 1980s a fourth and in the 1990s a third. If the rate of development hitherto persists – and much speaks for this – only every other dependent employee will have permanent full-time employment in ten years while the other half will be working like the Brazilians.


In the political economy of insecurity, the new power-game and power-differential is expressed between territorially bound political actors (governments, parliaments and unions) and non-territorially bound economic actors (capital-, financial- and trading powers). Action possibilities of states have shriveled to the dilemma of either increasing poverty with high unemployment (as in most European countries) or flagrant poverty with less unemployment (as in the US). This is connected with the fact that the gainful society draws to a close, the more people are replaced by intelligent technologies. Thus the increasing unemployment can no longer be referred back to cyclical economic crises but to the success of its technologically promoted capitalism. The old economic instrument fails and all paid work falls under the pressure of threatened replacement.

The political economy of insecurity has a domino effect. What was reinforced in good times – full-time employment, secure pensions, high tax revenue, and possibilities of state policy –is now endangered. Gainful employment becomes precarious. The foundations of the social state crumble. The normal biography becomes brittle. Senior-citizen poverty is pre-programmed. The rising storm on income support cannot be financed from the empty treasuries of the communes.

Orthodox strategies are forced onto the defensive. “Flexibility” is urged everywhere. In other words, an “employer” should be able to “fire” his “employees” more easily. “Flexibility” means redistribution of risks from the state and the economy to individuals. Available jobs become “renewable”, that is short-term and more easily terminable. “Flexibility” means ultimately: “Rejoice, your knowledge and ability are antiquated and no one can tell you what you must learn to be needed in the future.”


The more labor relations are “deregulated” and “flexibilized”, the more swiftly the work society will be transformed into a risk society that is incalculable for the individual’s lifestyle and for the state and politics generally. Deciphering the political economy of risk in its conflicting consequences for the economy, politics and society becomes all the more important. One thing at least is clear: Insecurity is the characteristic that will mark the existence of the majority of people in the future – including those in the apparently prosperous center!

Thus the appearance of society changes dramatically under the influence of the political economy of insecurity. Extreme differences intensify between the highest top and the lowest bottom. There is actually no bottom any more, only an outside. Anomalies unfold and complicate life. More and more people live between the categories of poor and rich. Top and bottom are no longer unequivocally polarized but overlap and merge into a kind of aspect-wealth, aspect-poverty, temporary wealth and combined forms of existence. As a result, insecurity reigns in nearly all camps of society. Divisions occur in societies corresponding to the importance of knowledge and capital, perhaps even a collective descent of whole groups. Initially this may be discursively made more attractive by the rhetoric of “independent entrepreneurial individualism”. However the collapse of the foundations of the highly praised social state, vigilant everyday democracy and the self-image of the working middle-class society based on the “institutionalized class compromise” cannot be ignored in the long run.


With he irrevocable loss of full employment in the classic sense, Europe’s identity and its political postwar projects are up for grabs. When global capitalism dissolves the core of values of the work society in the countries of the West, the historical alliance between capitalism, the welfare state and democracy will be shattered. No one should be deceived. Owner-capitalism that only aims at profit and excludes employees, the social state and democracy abandons its own legitimacy. The neoliberal utopia is a form of democratic literacy. The market does not have its justification in itself. This economic mode is only viable in teamwork with material security, social rights and democracy, that is the democratic state. Whoever only relies on the free market destroys this economic mode together with democracy. The turbulences on the international financial markets of Asia, Russia and South America in the fall of 1998 give a foretaste of this danger.

No one still puts capitalism in question today. Who would dare to do this? The only potential opponent of capitalism is profit-fixated capitalism itself. Bad news on the labor market is regarded as a victory announcement on Wall Street. The underlying calculus is simple. Profit rises when labor costs fall. That the technologically-promoted capitalism tears down nation-state barriers, produces more and more with less and less labor, blocks political initiatives for a new European social model and social contract is thereby robbed of its legitimation. Whoever reflects about unemployment today may not become a prisoner of the old terms in the conflict over the “second labor market”, the “lowering of wage costs” or the “state share” but must ask: How will democracy be possible beyond the full-employment society? What appears to be the end with rack and ruin has to be re-thought so new ideas and models can open up the state, industry and society to the 21st century.


For me, the antithesis of the work society is boosting the political society of individuals, the active citizens’ society, and a local and transnational civil democracy in Europe. This society of active citizens that doesn’t remain in the container of the nation state but organizes its activities locally and across borders can find and develop, in miniature, local answers to the challenges of the Second Modernity, individualization, globalization, shriveling paid employment and ecological crises. In this way that is often full of conflict, communal democracy and identity can be revived in communal projects (ecological initiatives, Agenda 21, working with the homeless, theater-, discussion- and cultural centers).

Civil society and direct democracy presuppose that citizens can muster and use energy for engagement. Aren’t those excluded who cannot participate in social and political life because they are under economic pressure or on the brink of disaster and are cultur4ally ignored? Didn’t the idea of civil democracy originate from a middle class idyll? Isn’t a low-wage sector opened up in this way that is counter-productive since it contributes to dismantling regular gainful employment?

The stimulation of communal democracy is tied to the following preconditions of division of labor in the “multi-active” society:

· Work time would have to be shortened for all on the full-employment labor market.

· Everyone – women and men – should be able to have one leg in gainful employment.

· Parents’ work, i.e. work with children, would have to be equally recognized by society as well as artistic, cultural and political civic work by, for example, claims for pensions and health care being granted to both categories – parental and civic.

· Finally, simultaneous commitment to gainful employment and civic work also presupposes redistributing family obligations between men and women.

Concretely, the question is raised: How is a post-national and political civic society possible in Europe? New possibilities in harmonizing work, life and political action can only arise and be assured when the new precariousness of forms of employment is transformed into a right to intermittent gainful employment, a right to discretionary time, to a labor time sovereignty re-embedded in framing conditions according to scale. This will enable every person to harmonize his or her life with the claims and necessities of others in an interim of family, gainful employment, leisure time and political commitment and shape his or her life independently for a period of one or several years.

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