No Work instead of Precarious Work

by Karl-Heinz Lewed Friday, Feb. 24, 2006 at 5:57 AM

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.


By Karl-Heinz Lewed

[This article published in Jungle World 28/2004 (June 30, 2004) under the title “Lieber faul als prekar” (Better Lazy than Precarious) is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

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.


By Joseph Vogl

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, January 13, 2006 as “Lauter Blauplausen” is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0031.idx,2. Joseph Vogl is a professor of the theory and history of artificial worlds at the Bauhaus University of Weimar.]

That economic systems provide special biographies beside goods and markets has been true for centuries. Among the modern attempts to produce a reliable and “new” person, only the economic man has survived, a specimen that functions in the everyday world and in theory. This must be counted as one of the most important western cultural- and export articles.

This economic person has proven its worth in all its variations as the most successful human format – wherever and whenever this economic man arose, whether in the upper Italian trading branches of the Renaissance, in the economic textbooks of the 18th century, as a freely acting subject of the Enlightenment or that restless entrepreneurial spirit responsible for the colonization of the world. He has proven a success because – like its most radiant hero, Robinson Crusoe – he acted like a little island of rationality in an inscrutable, accidental and irrational world. He knew how to change his passions into interests and interests into advantages and demanded nothing more than that everyone attempt this and substitute his own interests with the interests of others. Business was only business for them because it was different from everything else and only trusted the criterion of payments, profit and loss, not good and evil or just and unjust. A special life course was envisioned that developed as a career, a constantly progressing life that takes several successful steps with every successful step and happily capitalizes on its possibilities.

The idyll of an economic person appeared that way. Its epoch is now coming to an end. Its professional advocates, management and economics with their old, tested qualities are no longer enough. Untapped resources are discovered with a last innovative push. The new economy exceeds the limits of the economic and reconstructs the relational world. Everything is economic – as economists and Nobel Prize winners like Gary S. Becker decree: family and sex, vacations and crimes, friendship and the little personal absurdity. What is called “human capital” has become an eminent post of the economic because the distinction to the non-economic is no longer applicable.

That is the program of an “economic imperialism” that envelops non-market-friendly situations. Capitalism has become an intensive greatness; the social is the economic. Households become little factories; individuals are defined as micro-enterprises. A neoliberal style of government is unfolded where economic actors are addressed as blueprints of “whole persons” with all their abilities, skills, illusions and desires, not merely as workers, exchangers, producers and consumers. The old economic person, a rational fool, mutates into the all-embracive normal type.

This appears in the liquidation of symbolic demarcations. Organizational structures become fluid. Active individuals find themselves as work nomads in a twilight zone between family life and office, occupation and privacy, personal and professional relations. The slogans of management and economics offer an overview how reality is programmed. Lifelong learning, flexibility and the rule of the short-term require the dissolution of stable identities and reserve the future for a nebulous and constantly changeable ego. Whoever turns to the self-help literature for wage earners will be taught about the end of vocational routines, the end of expected paths in life and careers. The identity pressure gives way to the pressure to the non-identical.

Thus the reformed economic person is born with a soft core and blunt edges and finds his support in roles that exist in fantasy and in the new market of fictions, neither in life nor occupation. A warrior who sets out for adventures, the miracle-working shaman, the healer or savior who intervenes in the greatest distress, the helpful magician or traveling minstrel who makes everyone happy – these and other avatars, it is said, should make easier the transformation of the self-made man into a man-made self and compensate the business-oriented ego-weaknesses with belief in a permanent mission. However this may function in the office, the economizing of the social obviously calls forth into action esoteric fantasies in which situations and what “society” once was are mystified. The laws of fantasy have taken over the design of the subject and the subject’s roles.