Three Questions to Guy Standing

by Stanimir Panayotov

Guy Standing will participate to the Transeuropa Festival 2012 to the event Precariousness: from a social condition to a state of mind on the 20th of May at UCL, London

The terms “precarity” and “precariat” are not entirely new and have been around for the last decade or so. What is the new and specific meaning you invest in the “precariat”?

Standing:The precariat must be understood as part of the emerging global class structure. It consists of a growing number of people who are experiencing multiple forms of social and economic insecurity. Those finding themselves in the precariat have no employment security, being in and out of short-term jobs without protection against abrupt dismissal. They also have no job security, in the sense that they usually have to do jobs they do not wish to do and what they feel capable of doing. They have no control over the tasks they have to perform, or the opportunity to develop themselves through their jobs. They also experience income insecurity, being unsure what level of income they will be receiving and being denied access to non-wage benefits, such as medical leave or paid holidays or the prospect of a decent pension in the future. They also experience representation insecurity, in the sense of having no voice in their relations with employers or even fellow workers.
I think the idea of “status frustration” is most appropriate for the precariat – a sense that the jobs they might obtain are well below the qualifications they possess. Finally, as part of the definition of those in it, the precariat has to do a great deal of what I call in my book, work-for-labour. In other words, they have to perform a lot of work that does not receive any remuneration, over and above what labour they may be doing. This includes a lot of work done to try to obtain state benefits as well as learn new bundles of tricks that are conventionally called “skills”.

Can you explain the continuity between your theoretical work on precarity and the Basic Income Earth Network with whom you are collaborating? What political project do you refer to when you mention the universal basic income principle? 

Standing:Twenty-five years ago, a group of us – economists, philosophers, sociologists, and others – set up a network to promote discussion and advocacy of a basic income for everybody in society, as a right. We called the network BIEN, meaning then Basic Income European Network. After a few years, many more people from outside Europe were joining the network. So we renamed the network, BIEN, where the E was changed to Earth. Now we have members from all over the world, with national networks being affiliated to the international BIEN. It would be great if a Bulgarian network were to be formed. We have dealt with all the arguments thrown against the idea, and are confident that having a basic income as a social right would help provide the basic security that is essential for any market society. Remember that the idea is that it should be unconditional for all legal residents in society, regardless of a person’s work status, age or marital status. Gradually, politicians are beginning to see it is common sense. Many distinguished people have joined. Everybody can become a Life Member of the network and come to the next Congress. The next one is in Munich on the 14th – 16th of September this year.

How do you see the future of the precariat’s “work force”: will it tend towards representation and resuscitation of trade unionism or will it become more and more diffuse and autonomous?  

Standing:I am confident that the precariat will start to organize and demand recognition as a crucial social force. At the moment, it is a class-in-the-making. People in the precariat know what they are against – the disgusting inequalities and the chronic insecurity that they face, without control over their own development or working lives. However, they are only beginning to work out a coherent progressive agenda.

Guy Standing is Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, England. He was formerly Director of Socio-Economic Security in the International Labour Organisation, after being Director of Labour Market Policies. Having been a co-founder, he is co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).