The new world of precarious work and its right wing cheerleaders

A few years back I found myself in a training called “Career Development and Planning” (with the implicit subtitle ‘how to sell yourself’) where we were shown a video, which was a series of graphic presentations of various statistics and messages relating to a paradigm shift towards the New World of Work, set to a soundtrack evoking haunting optimism with MGMT’s do do do do-do do do do doooooo. The message was that the Generation Y workforce is an empowered generation who have through their technology-mediated consumer lifestyles acquired more skills and tools than workplaces can offer. The nature of work is being continuously transformed (supposedly through their amazing innovation) to the extent that:

“The top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. Using technologies that haven’t been invented yet in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet”.

The video would have us believe that this rapid rate of transformation is due to how the ‘Gen Y’ers’ use technology in their social lives to make everything they do ultra efficient, and that they are taking this approach with them into work. And here lies the rump of the emergent paradigm shift that supposedly ‘our Leaders’ are not ready for: this Generation Y workforce has also acquired certain expectations, four in particular, from their consumer lifestyle which they are demanding be incorporated into the new world of work in order to realise their ultra-high levels of productivity. These expectations are to Collaborate, Connect, Co-create, and Control/personalise their work.

That first time I was shown the video, the trainer started to tell us that we should have nothing to worry about in terms of the crisis. The recovery was coming, and when it comes, all those companies are going to be falling over each other to be a ‘talent magnet’ and to give Gen-Y the freedom to do some great work. The magical feel-good enchantment of MGMT was still lingering in the room, when one guy asked “what level of education would this apply to?”. And then like a riskless speculation orgy the bubble was burst when the trainer responded “well of course, this is aimed at higher end graduates from higher education institutions”. The frankness elucidated by this question was a welcome break from the self-congratulatory delusions that the training was trying to educate us to have. Neither the video nor the trainer thought it important to specify that when they referred to Generation Y, they actually were only referring to the upper middle class of that generation. Should we take it then that work practices of the lower 70% odd who don’t really matter, is their work practices the same old? Of course not, and there sits one of the most disturbing things about this sort of right-wing sentiment. Behind these declarations of emancipated self-management utopian labour paradigm – strictly for those who can afford it, mind you – is the reality of how ideological constructions of efficiency, and flexibalisation are used as a basis for an ongoing neoliberalisation of wage labour – this time for those who can’t afford it.

Capitalism in Marx’s day was characterised by a contradiction between the forces of Capital and Labour, materialised in the struggle between capitalists and workers over the labour process on the factory floor. At some stage came an innovation in the organisation of capitalism which has allowed the capitalist to excuse himself from the struggle: firms were put into the hands of ‘managers’ who’s wages would be tied to the profit rate of the firm, thus in effect enlisting the manager on the side of Capital. Freed from the immediacy of organising the firm, the capitalist was then free to manage his multiple investments, and with that came a new phase: finance capitalism. What is now happening with the current restructuring of work and the expansion in precarious labour is that workers themselves are being enlisted on the side of Capital – you are your own manager – internalising the contradiction between Capital and Labour – it’s your choice whether you want to reward or screw yourself, now or later. In this neo-liberated world of work you can personalise what short-term jobs you apply for, you can co-create ways to save money by working longer for less, you can connect with management because you are your own manager, and you can collaborate … wherever.

Well actually, somebody you cannot collaborate with so much is other workers. Union membership is plummeting in recent decades, and while one factor behind this might well be the way mainstream unions have been organising and arguably on the side of Capital, another undeniable factor is that Capital no longer concentrates workers in such a way that makes it easy for them to organise. In the European context, you can distinguish between three different groups of precarious workers – the graduates without a future, the informal and otherwise unprotected (often immigrant or under age), and the traditional working class. Although these latter two groups largely experience worse material deprivation and precarity is not a new condition, I’m going to focus more on the first group because in asking what hope is there for Labour resistance against Capital in this landscape the graduates without a future hold a particularly contradictory position.

Organisation faces a series of practical obstacles. Because many are unemployed, working in temporary positions, or have joined the self-employed race to the bottom, workplace unionising is not a valid route for obvious reasons. Worse, in the permanent state of short-term and underpaid contracts, any kind of labour activity is a bit of a non-starter, because as a self-manager you will be well aware that the shitty wages are compensated for by the experience you are gaining, which your next gig depends on – so don’t do anything to fuck this one up. But at a more ideological level, this state of precarity is often sold to Gen-Y’ers as temporary, and that in the future they will be rewarded for their hard work, which many manager-selves take to heart and expect to someday earn 6-figure salaries, possibly working as the financial fuckers of the future – the same class of people who made the crisis for everybody else. What hope is there for solidarity and class consciousness when you are grouped with these people?

A few years ago I was doing one of these stints in an investment bank (don’t ask me how I got in, all I know is they didn’t keep me very long). But there were around 50 to 60 interns there at any given time. When I was talking to any of them everybody had the same set of complaints about the life of the intern – shitty wages, getting screwed on rent because only cowboy landlords take short-term renters, not knowing what would happen next, working extra-hard because you need a good reference, having to continuously start from zero at each new place, being far away from loved ones, and in some cases facing the possibility of not being able to have children if things don’t pick up soon, as well as a host of issues specific to working at that particular bank. Almost everybody, even the finance prodigies shared some sort of story around some of these issues when going for a beer or having a cigarette. As I saw it, Capital was forcing us to screw ourselves at these jobs, which the company justified by saying there was no funds for full positions, only these legally obscure, sub-minimum wage internships for which they received external funding on a project-by-project basis. But my reasoning was that if you took away those 50-60 people (by legal re-classification or by strike) there is no way the bank could continue functioning without having to hire some new staff – US. In other words, acting as individuals on these once-off, semi-legal contracts led to us being classed as non-official participants, without any kind of employment rights, and therefore experiencing all these issues outlined above and ultimately undermining employment prospects for us as a category. To address any of this in whatever small way, we would have to be recognised, and recognise ourselves, as a collectivity rather than a set of one-off individuals.

Actually, in one way, the interns were organised – they had this informal elected position of coordinator, whose job it was to organise social events etc. I’m not dissing the importance of something like this for people whose lives are totally out of sync with the pace of the different places they have to inhabit short-term. Being able to quickly make friends and mutual support networks is a basic survival strategy. But I was hoping for more, and used to test the waters by from time to time suggesting couldn’t we organise other things apart from socialising, for instance all those things that everybody is always complaining about. I would only throw out these comments in small groups in a pub or at lunch to see what the general feeling was, but overall there was no appetite there – seeds would not take root in this soil.

So I spent about 6 months wondering how people could so strongly identify elements of a common class experience, but have no inclination for collective identification or organising around them. And what I was suggesting was far from radical – just interest-representation, not any kind of action. I would usually suggest the idea of having the coordinator or somebody else try to ‘liaise’ with management about certain intern-issues. All very corporate-friendly but still no interest in talking about the complaints that everybody faced beyond the context of social conversation. Until one evening one of the interns committed suicide. The management at the bank decided they needed to ‘address’ this and hastily called a meeting to ‘hear’ from the interns about how life was working there. This meeting took place less than 24 hours after the suicide so it lacked a clear sense of purpose or structure. And in my opinion this was the greatest aspect of it. Because after some caginess in the beginning, one-by-one the complaints started to be shared, and once that started, everybody started wanting to share their story. For the first time, WE talked about OUR working conditions, sometimes very specifically, sometimes more generally. Was this the start of something? Could the grads without future develop class consciousness and an understanding of the system that put us where we were? Would we be able to stand in solidarity with one another? Could we even start to think about the next step and stand in solidarity with informal and traditional working classes?

I don’t know what happened next because my time there came to an end soon after and I was on a Eurolines out of there. But I doubt much changed in the years since. The bank probably reframed the issue somewhere along the corporate friendly lines of one of the closing statements in the new world of work video: “So ask yourself, How easy do we make it for our Gen Y’ers to do great work? Are we embracing their ability to Control, Co-create; Connect, and Collaborate”. I imagine 95% percent of the interns there at the time have also moved on. I don’t know if many of them have retained this memory of almost-collective, but I’m pretty sure those lucky enough to have started their meteoric rise in the corporate and financial world won’t be looking back for notes on how to start building class solidarity.

It’s sad of course sad that it took a suicide for the bank to start paying any attention to how it exploits this underpaid unofficial workforce. But also sad that it took a largely insincere response to this suicide on part of management for us to finally take our thoughts on the experience of precarity from just coffee or beer talk to a semi-organisational forum and from peer-to-peer to we. While there are clearly practical barriers I would say it is culture which poses the greatest obstacle to pracarious organising as a first baby step to anti-Capital Labour. In one way I suppose the subjectivities created by new technologies and social media relations are not so conducive to collective-thinking. But more than that I think it is the right-wing shite that students are fed – sorry, educated – convincing them to self-identify as talent managers rather than workers. But then I suppose that makes sense as universities will teach people to side with Capital rather than Labour. The only way to confront this is through unlearning it in the university of life, the slow and difficult process that it is.

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