In this series Luke explores the Eight Modern Giants introduced by Economist Guy Standing in his recent report Basic Income as Common Dividends. Here we look at Precarity, perhaps the most abstract of the Giants but something that has a profound impact on the way we experience the modern world.
Luke Brotherdale-Smith, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Volunteer
As we move beyond the halfway point in this series, the next ‘giant’ that Standing points to as representing a challenge in modern Britain is Precarity. We all are very aware of huge inequality in our society, and insecurity and debt are similarly prevalent wherever we look. But precarity is slightly different, it is almost like a combination of all the giants I have written about so far and a topic Guy Standing has explored at length having published a book on the subject. Inequality, insecurity, debt and stress when mixed together create an incapacitating state of precarity – uncertainty, anxiety and ultimately a lack of power over your own destiny (sounds shit – and it is). In fact, the grip of precarity is so protracted throughout the UK that it has led to the formation of a new class of people – something Standing labels the ‘Precariat’. I will talk about the existence of the Precariat later in this article, discussing it within the context of our grossly unequal class system. I will explore the necessity of the Precariat for the power of the mega-wealthy, as well as how a Basic Income can and will change these concerning trends. But first I thought it would be worth nailing down a definition of precarity.
Basic Income is forward looking and will help rebuild communities, beckoning in an era driven, not by competition and concentrated wealth, but cooperation and compassion.
In short, Standing describes precarity as a state of precariousness that goes beyond insecurity and stress. As well as the economic uncertainty that comes with insecure work, precarity also includes a lack of identity, an absence of ultimate purpose. Going back a century, the traditional working classes, (or proletariat, for the Marxists amongst us,) had a sense of pride, identity and purpose. Setting the exploitative wages and terrible conditions aside for a sec, old, staple industries in Britain were jobs that had purpose, which had communities built around them. The miners, for example, knew their work was (quite literally) fuelling the country’s prosperity and there was a great self-respect that resulted from the national pride in this work. Strong unions and a movement strengthening workers’ rights year on year also altered the balance of power within the workplace. This however has changed greatly as the UK economy has transformed, with declining protections and weakened unions. There are 3.8 million people now in precarious employment, working part-time or on zero-hours contracts and surviving off ‘bits and pieces’ work (when given the call). The kind of work undertaken is neither meaningful nor fulfilling, and a key feature of precarity is this lack of purpose. One of the reasons we have seen the far-right populism of ‘Make American Great Again’ or ‘Make Britain sovereign again’ (not quite as catchy) is this desire to rediscover pride and identity. This is perhaps one of the most invisible and yet largest crises facing people in 21st century Britain; an absence of identity and the sense of narrative it brings to your life. But rather than a rose-tinted, Trump-esque desire to roll back the clock to dangerous and unsustainable industries, we need a bold vision of the future without precarity or insecurity, and a Basic Income will underpin this.
The consequence of the sustained drift towards precarity is the emergence of a new class system, a new economics and ultimately a new reality. Charles Dickens wrote over two centuries ago about a tale of two cities. Through the novel he explored his very real and current experience of poverty and inequality and how they created an exploitative class system. Some things have developed beyond recognition since these times and we now have computer technologies, a health service and greater diversity. But our economy and its injustice have regressed to create a reality frighteningly similar to that which Dickens portrayed. The world’s richest 26 people own the wealth of the bottom 50%. That’s just shy of 4 billion people’s total wealth equalling that of 26 people – if that doesn’t raise questions about our economic system I don’t know what will. If you want a more tangible example of this inequality, how about the difference of life expectancies in Glasgow between the wealthiest and most deprived areas: those in the poorest areas live on average lives that are over 10 years shorter than those in the most affluent areas. This is a dark reminder of the Dickensian reality we have stumbled into and it is the existential explosion of precarity, due to debt and insecurity, which is making more people vulnerable to falling into total deprivation. And it is a Basic Income which can eradicate this precarity and the extreme deprivation it can lead to.
All of us in the 99% are forever two steps away from hardship, but infinitely separated from those at the top.
But rather than a tale of two cities we are seemingly living in a world of two realities. One for the super rich, the elites and plutocrats who run the world, and another for the rest of us, who fight amongst ourselves to feed off their crumbs. Now, some of you might be thinking ‘But I’m middle class – I’m not mega-rich but I’m not poor’ and that may appear to be the case. But when you zoom out and look at the incomprehensible level of wealth the elites of this planets hold in comparison to people ‘doing alright’, the latter are so much closer to those living on the streets then they ever will be to the untouchables owning half the planet’s wealth. Another challenge comes when communities want to direct anger at refugees and the poor; we need to understand that all of us in the 99% are forever two steps away from hardship, but infinitely separated from those at the top.
Guy Standing talks about our modern class system and discusses the creation of the Precariat. Unlike the rapidly evaporating traditional working class (Proletariat), the Precariat lives an incredibly uncertain and unstable life. Unsure where the next bit of work is coming from and living in a state of existential insecurity. Like I mentioned earlier, I think a big feeling in modern Britain is a lack of identity, a lack of purpose, that what we do has no meaning and isn’t contributing to something bigger than ourselves. This is embodied by the Precariat, who undertake monotonous and meaningless work which is neither fulfilling for them nor contributing to a bigger purpose – except the profits of their employers. The creation of this class of precarity and uncertainty is no accident. It is designed by a global capitalist system which relies on desperate and insecure workers to take any low paid job available. Mining, steelworks, jobs which fed into a sense of purpose and regional identity are dying, as are the communities which were built around them. The rights of workers are being slowly ground away, as are the securities and safety nets which support people when there is no work. The traditional working class is all but decimated and as the middle class continues to shrink, the Dickensian nightmare of precarity and uncertainty will become the norm. And then at the other end of this class system sit the elites, the oligarchs and plutocrats who quite literally run the world. This isn’t a Marxist conspiracy or some over excitable Orwellian hyperbole, but the grim reality. Who funds politicians and the political parties that run our countries? Who owns our newspapers and media which deliver the ‘news’ on a day to day basis? Who provide the low-paying and insecure work people desperately need to survive? Who is it that funds research which attempts to spread doubt about the existence of climate change? The power the untouchable plutocrats hold is terrifying and yet when people get angry over shit pay, the lack of meaning of their life and disgusting inequality, who is it the media blame? Immigrants, the poor and other vulnerable scapegoats. It’s almost as if the elites con-trolling the media don’t want to be held accountable for the destruction of communities and the planet they have resided over.
It is this cycle of hate which enables the wealthy to continue to win and shaft each and every one of us in the process. The final article I will write in this series will be about the rise of neo-fascism and the far right, so I won’t dwell too much on that. However, when the fear and anger produced by pre-carity is directed by the media and politicians towards the most vulnerable, we see creatures like Trump and Boris Johnson elected. Two people who epitomise the elite, and who will make their en-tire political mission a service to their privileged pals of the 1%.
But hang on. All this moaning about precarious work, but what about employment? We’re always told by politicians and the media we’ve got record levels of employment! Maybe we need to be more positive, be more like Boris! What if our distant plutocrats are actually benevolent, guardian angel-like heroes, who keep us alive by generously giving people work. But does this ‘work’, which has no guaranteed hours and pays poverty wages, justify companies paying no tax and destroying the planet? Hmm tricky one…
What is the purpose of employment that means still being in poverty, still being stressed and anxious, that damages human wellbeing and the planet we live on? (I think we know the answer and it sure as hell isn’t your wellbeing nor your bank balance). The growth of the precariat utterly under-mines all historical assumptions of the benefits of employment, and it’s time our policy-making reflected these changes. We need systems in place to reduce precarity and alter the huge imbalances of wealth and power which have created the precariat class. A Basic Income will do this in three ways:
· Funding a Basic Income through redistribution of the elite’s wealth
· Providing a guaranteed safety net to reduce the uncertainty and stress driving precarity
· Empowering people and giving them autonomy, not subject to benefit conditions.
The first ‘giant’ I wrote about was Inequality, and that article discusses the role a Basic Income could have as a redistributive mechanism reducing inequality. Through effectively taxing the huge swathes of wealth the elite class have gradually monopolised, a Basic Income can put power back into the hands of the powerless precariat. The escalating inequality and concentrated power that has been built off increasing precarity can be reversed through a progressively funded Basic Income. The trickling up of wealth into the hands of the ultra-rich is enabled through forcing people into lives of precarity through no guaranteed hours, low wages, no pensions, no paid holidays, no paid leave etc. This prioritisation of profit, where the effects of cost cutting are inflicted on the workforce, ultimately reinforces great inequality and a class system built on exploitation. A Basic Income will reverse these regressive trends and end the growth of the precariat before it becomes the new norm.
This prioritisation of profit, where the effects of cost cutting are inflicted on the workforce, ultimately reinforces great inequality and a class system built on exploitation.
The second way a Basic Income will combat precarity is through providing an effective safety net, a guarantee of a life lived without destitution and poverty. As I discussed earlier, insecurity and anxiety are key elements of a life of precarity, with a constant fear of what is around the corner and no certainty over future work or living standards. But a Basic Income will provide that certainty, and it will provide that security. Rather than being driven through a fear of not being able to put food on the table or pay your bills, a Basic Income will provide a level of security that will greatly reduce and ultimately remove precarity from people’s lives.
The third way in which a Basic Income will reduce precarity is through providing autonomy and agency to all people. The current welfare policy of Universal Credit forces people to behave in certain ways and meet certain conditions, whilst threatening people with sanctions at every juncture. In essence, the government is controlling your behaviour, and in order to earn basic levels of benefits, you must do as they say: they own you, strip away your freedom. This only heightens precarity due to an uncertainty over whether you will get payments, when you get them and exactly what you need to do to prove your deservingness for support. A Basic Income takes a radically different approach, giving people an unconditional income, enabling freedom and true autonomy. The increased certainty that comes with having control and agency will eradicate precarity where current systems height-en it.
A Basic Income will empower people to say no to the exploitative jobs which define the precariat. It will provide a certainty, ending the fear and precarity modern day work instills in people and providing freedom and hope. Funded by a progressive and effective taxation system, the Basic Income will also redistribute our wealth and power, which has been systematically trickling up to the elites for decades. As Guy Standing states in his report, any social policy should be judged on its ability to reduce precarity. We currently employ a system that greatly heightens insecurity, anxiety and stress, thus producing the existential precarity we see. The consequences of this precarity must not be under-exaggerated as we see the rise of the far right in the UK. The guarantees a Basic Income offers, and the agency and autonomy it enables, will greatly reduce precarity and actually put people first. Not only will this boost human wellbeing, but it will also alter the balance of power and the class system in this country. Rather than going back to the ‘good old days’ a Basic Income is forward looking and will help rebuild communities, beckoning in an era driven, not by competition and concentrated wealth, but cooperation and compassion.
This blog is one of a series looking at Guy Standing’s recently published report, written for the Shadow Chancellor, ‘Basic Income as a Common Dividends’. Influenced of course by Beveridge, Standing reflects on the eight modern giants he sees as stalking modern Britain. He comments on how these giants are having a protracted negative effect on society as well as the economy, and how a Basic Income can be a key tool in combatting the growing challenges these giants pose. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing a series of articles analysing Standing’s eight giants and delving further into how the Basic Income can (and will) combat them.
The giants are inequality, insecurity, debt, stress, precarity, automation, ecological crises and the rise of neo-fascism and the far right