anthronomics of the precariat

December 14th, 2009 | 9 comments
"Precarious" issue of MUTE (Vol.2 #0)

"Precarious" issue of MUTE (Vol.2 #0)

What are the characteristics of the precariat? When one outlines the precarious class it is often by way of emphasizing the importance of cognitive labour. But sometimes discussions of cognitive labour (or what is known, somewhat incorrectly, as “immaterial labour”) glance over what Brian Holmes calls “the flexible personality.” As Holmes writes of his essay (originally published in 2001), the world has now commenced the

full implementation of the flexible employment system, that is, of a labor regime in which worker mobility and variable hours are accompanied by continuous electronic surveillance and the managerial analysis of performance. (Holmes, Flexible Personality)

Holmes’ observation on the flexitarian personality reveal the double-edge of precarity. Precarity results from, in part, the demands of the ’60s to a less-rigid workplace. Precarity in this sense is the outgrowth of Fordism; it is post-Fordist, post-assembly-line, post-one-job-for-life labour. However, the exploitation of precisely this development announces the precarious class. As employers no longer have to commit to their employees, no longer have to think of employees as long-term partners in the functioning of a business, employees are like stock: they become replaceable on a seasonal basis. The affective state of precarity underlies the instability of mobility. As the Frassanito Network writes, precarity means “unsure, uncertain, difficult, delicate.” The problem of labour under precarity is outlined by Neilson and Rossiter in Fibreculture (5):

The mobile capacity of information corresponds, in many instances, with the flexible nature of work across many sectors of the media and cultural industries. And it is precisely the informatisation of social relations that makes political organisation such a difficult – even undesireable – undertaking for many. Without recourse to traditional institutions such as the union, new technics of organisation are required if the common conditions of exploitation are to be addressed and transformed. (Neilson and Rossiter, “Multitudes, Creative Organisation and the Precarious Condition of New Media Labour“)

Information, in this sense, does not necessarily have to tie into the precariat of the new media and culture industries. Information is also a strain of hierarchical knowledge used to discipline, surveil and control employees. By granting employees access to information on production stock, delivery times and production dates, employees are handed the additional responsibility of communicating to customers the availability (present and future) of products. Thus the employee also becomes the face of a third-party company and answers to critiques of that company’s production schedule from irate customers. This kind of information is downloaded into employees, however without the power to do much about it. There is no upload of information (“feedback”) to the company or the employer concerning the consequences of the downloaded information. In short, information is one-way, from top to bottom. Changes that might arise from bottom-to-top remain inacceptable, which points to the general structure of hierarchy which still prevails among precariat business. (There are exceptions to this rule in the hi-tech industries, notably Google, which grants a percentage of labour as creative time to pursue whatever project(s) one wishes – given that it too becomes corporate property and a measure of one’s job performance; thus the second level of precarious knowledge is to grant employees the power of “feedback,” but only insofar as it improves the power of the managing hierarchy.)

In my unscientific but deeply subjective experience of returning to the retail sales floor over the past year – what Adorno would call, with some damn fine sense, an objective point of view in this scenario – I can attest to the now deeply ingrained fears and managerial strategies of the flexible workforce.

The first rule, which has been in place since mean wages peaked in 1973, is to pay as little as possible for the work performed. As all businesses in a given locale follow this rule, a blanket excuse that ‘one pays as much as the others’ stifles demands for a living wage. By keeping wages low, it ensures that workers have no real alternative to (yet another) business-as-usual. Yet, everyone well realises that they are quickly replaceable; in short, the job is flexitarian, as there is no upward mobility, no increase in benefits, to be had in staying at any one job. This very system of low wages means that the majority of the population is unable to purchase their own products (thus risking the stability of the entire economy, as without consumers/buyers, there is no production). Without credit cards, we’d all be doomed. The rise of credit in the face of low wages plays an essential part of the current economy of consumer markets as well as the “credit crunch” and collapse of 2008. With the lowering of the living wage from the ’70s on, a solution had to be found to the reduced spending power of consumers. By opening the credit market to workers of all stripes, genders and colours in the ’80s, consumers could once again purchase without consequence (or rather: a delayed consequence that hit the world in 2008). This new lending market  led to “financialization” as speculation upon debt – and  to the subsequent collapse of the credit market. The delayed circularity of this collapse is nonetheless lost on the localized decision of the flexitarian system to keep wages low (see Midnight Notes Collective – Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons).

The second rule is not to offer raises to returning staff. This reinforces the flexibility of one’s position, or, in other words, that the business has little stake in your labour, and that you a replaceable entity. The fear of losing one’s job for the most part ensures that few if any demands are raised by workers. That few workers stay on for longer than a year means that they never achieve an organisational capacity to pursue demands. The strategy of not increasing pay for increased responsibility, tasks or labour is even to the detriment of the business, insofar as training a new staff member (in the face of a staff member who quits) demands more of managerial labour, time and expense than offering a raise. However, the reinforcement of a below-living-wage, even at the expense of the business – so as to maintain the flexibility of the system itself – is perhaps the strongest index of the flexitarian system. Labour is cheap and plentiful in this system, easily replaceable. Rather than meet (and negotiate) demands, employees are rejected in their demands and/or reprimanded for requesting them (and pursuing their negotiation).

Third is to increase the demands upon a worker without offering corresponding benefits (in pay or otherwise). The longer one stays at a position, the more responsibility must be assumed, tasks and labour, yet there is no benefit to the employee. By increasing the demands of a job without an increase in pay, the implicit message is to move on to an easier job at the same pay. Thus the flexitarian system maintains mobility in the workforce. At the same time, this means that no employee ever forms a caring attachment to the labour they are performing. If they do, it is out of a misplaced sense of servitude that is often set at odds to the demands of the employer (the employee often cares more about customer relations or product quality than the owner, in this sense). In this convoluted sense of loyalty, the delay of decisive action to leave a job sustains all kinds of conflicting emotions. Fear of losing one’s job, guilt over not meeting the increasing demands of an employer, frustration at not being able to address the situation, nor at being able to assume the true responsibility it would require to actually address the inequalities and evident problems of the business — this is the politics of affect that takes its toil on the shop floor, in the kitchen and grey-paneled office.

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