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A Precarious Sequel

A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens
by Guy Standing (Bloomsbury, UK, $39.99)
Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke

[Cross-posted from Max Rashbrooke’s blog.]

Precariat CharterGuy Standing’s 2011 book, The Precariat, made headlines by identifying what he called “a new dangerous class”. Marx had had the proletariat; now the most important class in the modern economy was, Standing argued, the precariat, the millions of people working in short-term, casual, precarious jobs. It was a brilliant term, and a powerful piece of analysis.

It was relevant around the world, and here in New Zealand, where we know that at least 30% of the workforce, and probably more like 40%, are in this kind of precarious work. As elsewhere, the work they do can be deeply damaging to their lives, and they are increasingly denied rights and privileges afforded to other citizens. (In fact, Standing argues, they are less and less ‘citizens’, and more and more ‘denizens’, people who live somewhere but do not have the rights of its citizens.)

The Precariat Charter, Standing’s follow-up, tries to chart a path to the future, one in which precarious work is abolished and the people who do it regain their full status as citizens. It is a noble aim; it’s just shame he makes such a terrible hash of the attempt.

Standing’s Charter has 29 articles, and it’s there that the problems begin. With so much ground to cover, every subject is, inevitably, dealt with in a brief and very sweeping manner. It doesn’t help that the book, as the author acknowledges, “does not reproduce many statistics” but is designed to increase empathy and prompt people to “reach out” to the precarious. On the one hand, the lack of statistics makes a lot of its claims difficult to accept. On the other, Standing’s tone and high-handed manner are exactly calculated not to increase empathy with anyone.

The Precariat Charter is a very black-and-white book, filled with things that “must” be done and people who “must understand” this, that or the other. Anyone who doesn’t like, for instance, a universal basic income has only a very tenuous hold on their “progressive credentials”, apparently. And the prose doesn’t help Standing’s cause. Perhaps the worst sentence, though it is by no means exceptional, is the one where he lays into Third-Way Labour parties’ “Faustian bargain” with global capital, declaring: “Like all Faustian bargains, the orgy had to end.”

There are some interesting ideas in the book, such as a proposal for giving every citizen a certain amount of money to spend on national election campaigns through the party of their choice, or organising a national ‘deliberation day’ to be held two weeks before a general election and devoted to public debate. There are some worthwhile challenges, too. Standing makes a good point that every new social problem finds its solution not in old institutions and organisations, but in the new ones that arise as part of the struggle. This presents an interesting question for trade unions, and others, as to what kind of institutions are needed to help those in precarious work. Unfortunately, as is generally the case, Standing is far better at diagnosing the problem than providing a sensible or helpful solution.

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Max Rashbrooke is the author of the edited collection “Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis” (BWB, 2013), and a journalist  working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues.

Here is Scoop Review of Books’ review of Inequality.