Would The Members of The Precariat Please Stand up?

This is another installment in a series of posts (herehere and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is the composition of the precariat and the consequences of such categories for society as a whole, in terms of social integration and social solidarity (how very durkheimian).

So, who is in the precariat?

“One answer is ‘everybody, actually’. Falling into the precariat could happen to most of us, if accidents occurred or a shock wiped out the trappings of security many have come to rely on. That said, we must remember that the precariat does not just comprise victims; some members enter the precariat because they do not want the available alternatives, some because it suits their particular circumstances at the time. In short, there are varieties of precariat.

Some enter the precariat due to mishaps, some are driven in it, some enter hoping it will be a stepping stone to something else, even if it does not offer a direct route, some choose to be in it instrumentally – including old agers and students simply wishing to obtain a little money or experience – and some combine a precariat activity with something else, as is increasingly common in Japan. Others find that what they have been doing for years, or what they were training to do, becomes part of an insecure precariat existence.” (59)

Standing then distinguishes between two categories within the precariat: the grinners (those who enter the precariat more or less voluntarily, such as students taking casual jobs and expect that to be temporary) and the groaners (those pushed into the precariat). Every demographic category of the precariat has its grinners and groaners. Among old agers, the grinners are those with decent pensions and benefits who get temporary jobs for the extra money or to fund some leisure activity. The groaners are those deprived of such benefits and who have to work for a living. For women, the grinners are those who have a partner with a solid and well-paying job in the salariat and who take jobs also for the extra money and treat them as a sideline. The groaners are those who have no such flexibility and need to work full-time.

Indeed, there is a major gender aspect to the precariat. The feminization of labor and of globalization has pushed more women into the workforce, often in a precarized fashion. Export processing zones are home to a generation of young women. Interestingly, the precariat has long been the norm for women in the workforce while it is relatively new for men (who were the ones who got the stable, unionized and well-paying jobs of the post-War period of expansion). The precariat becomes an major issue when it affects more men. As the ‘family wage’ (a feature of the industrial age, a man’s wage) has been more and more replaced with the individualized wage, women have seen their obligations multiply: forget about Arlie Hochschild’s second shit, enters Standing’s triple burden (paid work, housework / child care and eldercare)… these are the same women that experts in development have charged with meeting the MDGs (shall we consider that the quadruple burden).

So, let’s compare and contrast: women, who get a greater share of precariat jobs have to deal with the triple burden (and a host of other issues such as abusive bosses, horrendous working conditions, and the violence they are more likely to experience… see Juarez); as Standing shows, men, on the other hand, pushed into the precariat, have to adjust to the blow to their masculinity. Allow me to not feel too bad. Downward mobility is never fun but the ledger is still a lot longer on women’s side.

The youth are another major category of the precariat. The Global South has very large young cohorts but the same cohorts in the Global North, while smaller in numbers, do not have it easy either. And part of the reason for that is something that really is at the heart of the precariat: the commodification of education. Standing does not mince his words or mask his contempt for the promoters of education-as-business:

“The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.

Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed to the margins.

The education system is being globalised. It is brashly depicted as an industry, as a source of profits and export earnings, a zone of competitiveness, with countries, universities and schools ranked by performance indicators. It is hard to parody what is happening. Administrators have taken over schools and universities, imposing a ‘business model’ geared to the market. Although its standards have plunged abysmally,  the leader of the global ‘industry’ is the United States. Universities tend to compete not by better teaching but by offering a ‘luxury model’ – nice dormitories, fancy sports and dancing facilities, and the appeal of celebrity academic, celebrated for their non-teaching achievements.

Symbolising the loss of Enlightenment values, in the United Kingdom in 2009, responsibility for universities was transferred from the education department to the department for business. The then business minister, Lord Mandelson, justified the transfer as follows: ‘I want the universities to focus more on commercialising the fruits of their endeavour… business has to be central’.

Commercialisation of schooling at all levels is global. A successful Swedish commercial company is exporting a standardised schooling system that minimises direct contact between teachers and pupils and electronically monitors both. In higher education, teacher-less teaching and ‘teacher-less classrooms’ are proliferating (Giridharadas, 2009). The Masschusetts Institute of Technology has launched Open Courseware Consortium, enlisting universities around the world to post courses online free of charge, including professors’ notes, videos and exams. The iTunes portal offers lectures from Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere. The University of the People. founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free (tuition-less) bachelor degrees, through what it calls ‘peer-to-peer teaching’ – students learning not from teachers but from fellow students, trading questions and answers online.

Commercialisers claim it is about ‘putting the consumers in charge’. Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems and an investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online, argued that teachers should re-position themselves as ‘coaches, not content creators’, customising materials to students while piping in others’ superior teaching. This commodification and standardisation is cheapening education, denuding the profession of its integrity and eroding the passing on of informal knowledge. It is strengthening winner-take-all markets and accelerating the dismantling of an occupational community. A market in human capital will increase emphasis on celebrity teachers and universities, and favour norms and conventional wisdom. The Philistines are not at the gates; they are inside them.” (68-9)

And further:

“This commodification of education is a societal sickness. There is a price to pay. If education is sold as an investment good, if there is an unlimited supply of certificates and if these do not yield the promised return, in terms of access to good jobs and high income with which to pay off debts incurred because they were nudged to buy more of the commodity, more entering the precariat will be angry and bitter. The market for lemons comes to mind. As does the old Soviet joke, in which the workers said, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The education variant should be as follows: ‘They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn’. Infantilising the mind is part of the process, not for the elite but for the majority. Courses are made easier, so that pass rates can be maximised. Academics must conform.” (71-2)

And so, community colleges and their multitudes of vocational, narrow certificates are declared the wave of the future. This commercialisation of education is coupled with two precarity traps: (1) a debt trap and therefore, (2) low-income trap in order to pay these debts. And that is on top of the internship explosion I have discussed elsewhere. Interns are part of the precariat and they may be grinners (if they are the privileged few who can afford to NOT work and get a prestigious internship) or groaners (if they have to work and intern at the same time, for degree requirements).

The precariatization of the youth puts them also in competition with another generation: the elderly (or, to use the British phrase, the old agers). And on this, Standing’s predictions are rather gloomy:

“It is the idea of retirement that will fade, along with the pension, which was suited to an industrial age. The reaction to the fiscal crisis has been to roll back early retirement schemes and age-related incapacity benefits, to lower state pensions, to push back the age at which people can claim a state pension and the age at which they can claim a full state pension. Contribution rates have been climbing and the age at which people can receive a pension has gone up, more for women than for men to approach equality. The number of years of contributions to gain entitlement to a state pension has gone up, with the number required to receive a full pension increasing even more. In some countries, notably in Scandinavia, the legal retirement age for eligibility for a state pension is now pegged to life expectancy, so that access to a pension will recede as people on average live longer and will recede with each medical breakthrough.

This amounts to tearing up the old social compact. But the picture is even more complex, for while governments are convinced that they are in a fiscal hole with pensions, they are worried about the effect of ageing on labour supply. Bizarre though it may seem in the midst of recession, governments are looking for ways of keeping older workers in the labour force rather than relying on pensions because they think there will be a shortage of workers. What better way to overcome this than to make it easier for old agers to be in the precariat.” (81)

And it is a double whammy: since more jobs are in the precariat, old agers are more likely to be placed in them (because they might not need a full income from a full time job, for instance, or they are no longer concerned with building a career), and because there are more old agers around, more jobs are created in the precariat. As a result, old agers employment rate did not decline with the 2008 recession.

In addition, the whole pension system is now being individualized through another risk shit as pension schemes are being replaced with individual 401k-type plans where individuals bear all the risk. This move, of course, was pushed for by governments in the Western countries and this has resulted in putting two generations in competition and the odds are not in favor of the young. Governments have been instrumental in three ways, according to Standing, in fostering this intergenerational competition:

  1. Governments have subsidized investments in private pension plans with tax incentives, which is guaranteed to increase inequalities as only those who have enough disposable income can afford to properly fund a 401k or an IRA or any of such kind of plans. And those old agers who have access to pensions can then afford to take jobs that have low wages, thereby exercising a downward pressure on wages.
  2. Governments, such as in Japan, actively encourage firms to retain older employees or recruit them back, again using tax schemes and subsidies, at low status, no seniority.
  3. The anti-discrimination protections for old agers and other forms of anti-age discrimination actually work to maintain old agers in the workforce.

And, of course, old agers do not require maternity leaves, child care arrangements, and other benefits that younger workers might need. The lower costs of older workers erode the bargaining power of younger workers.

And then, there is one last category in the precariat (migrants and other minorities are discussed later in the book): the incarcerated masses.

“The precariat is being fed by an extraordinary number of people who have been criminalised in one way or another. There are more of them than ever. A feature of globalisation has been the growth of incarceration. Increasing numbers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, becoming denizens, without vital rights, mostly limited to a precariat existence. This has had much to do with the revival of utilitarianism and a zeal for penalising offenders, coupled with the technical capacity of the surveillance state and the privatisation of security services, prisons and related activities.


Criminalisation condemns people to a precariat existence of insecure career-less jobs, and a degraded ability to hold to a long-term course of stable living. There is double jeopardy at almost every point, since beyond being punished for whatever crime they have committed, they will find that punishment is accentuated by barriers to their normal involvement in society.

However, there is also growth of a precariat inside prisons. We consider how China has resorted to prison labour in chapter 4.  But countries as dissimilar as the United States, United Kingdom and India are moving in similar directions. India’s largest prison complex outside Delhi, privatised, of course, is using prisoners to produce a wide range of products, many sold online, with the cheapest labour to be found, working eight-hour shifts for six days a week. Prisoners with degrees can earn about US$1 a day, others a little less. In 2010 the new UK justice minister announced that prison labour would be extended, saying he wanted prisoners to work a 40-hour week. Prison work for a pittance has long been common in the United States. The precariat outside will no doubt welcome the competition.” (88)

This is very reminiscent of Loic Wacquant’s thesis of the neoliberal combination of workfare + prisonfare.

Explaining The Growth of The Precariat: Global Commodification, Flexibility, Precarity Trap and The Subsidy State

This is another installment in a series of posts (here and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic will be the causes of the growth of the precariat. Standing identifies several causes.

Global Commodification

“A central aspect of globalisation can be summed up in one intimidating work, ‘commodification‘. This involves treating everything as a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without effective ‘agency’ (a capacity to resist). Commodification has been extended to every aspect of life – the family, education system, firm, labour institutions, socia protection policy, unemployment, disability, occupational communities and politics.”

In the drive for market efficiency, barriers to commodification were dismantled. A neo-liberal principle was that regulations were required to prevent collective interests from acting as barriers to competition. The globalisation era was not one of de-regulation but of re-regulation, in which more regulations were introduced than in any comparable period of history.” (26)

This sounds a lot like Jurgen Habermas’s idea of colonization of the lifeworld by the system.

According to Standing, firms and companies themselves have been commodified through accelerating and multiplying mergers and acquisitions. This means an end to Ronald Coase’s conception of firms as reducing costs and risks of doing business while increasing trust and long-term relationships. In investing frenzies, there is no incentive to building up long-term relationships based on trust and deep knowledge. This, of course, makes life more insecure for employees as overnight mergers and acquisitions can completely disrupt organizations and individual careers through offshoring (within firms) and outsourcing (to other firms). The relationship between employer and employee is then also one of limited trust and short-term in outlook and careers and skill acquisition become individualized projects:

“The disruption feeds into the way skills are developed. The incentive to invest in skills is determined by the cost of acquiring them, the opportunity cost of doing so and the prospective additional income. If the risk increases of not having the opportunity to practise skills, investment in them will decline, as will the psychological commitment to the company. In short,  if firms become more fluid, workers will be discouraged from trying to build careers inside them. This puts them close to being in the precariat.


For a growing number of workers in the twenty-first century, it would be folly to regard a firm as a place for building a career and gaining income security. There would be nothing wrong with that, if social policy were adapted so that all those working for companies are able to have basic security. At present, this is far from the case.” (30-1)

Flexibility: Commodification of Labor

Anyone who has paid attention to what neo-liberal globalists have been saying for the past thirty years knows that flexibilization of labor has been their mantra. The idea is that labor, especially in the Global North, was too rigid and regulated and protected to be truly efficient. Remove these cumbersome regulations and the firms’ power to compete on the global stage would be unleashed. Flexibility of labor relations is a necessary condition for Western countries to be able to compete with emerging countries. Needless to say, much flexibility has already been accomplished but flexibilization is a work-in-progress, a never-ending project as there are always pockets of labor that have not been completely subjected to the neo-liberal regime (in the US, for instance, the time has come for public workers). Obviously, this has been a major cause of growth of the precariat. For Standing, flexibility is the commodification of labor, or rather re-commodification of labor – that is, the progressive dismantlement of labor protections that had been fought for over the past hundred and fifty years or so.

This flexibility of labor relations is multi-faceted. It involves numerical flexibility through what used to be called non-traditional forms of labor that are now becoming the norm such as temporary labor, underemployment, offshoring and outsourcing, unpaid furloughs, “zero-hour contracts” and the expansion of internships (something discussed here). In the well-known division between primary and secondary labor market and there is no doubt that the secondary labor market is growing with the loss of training opportunities, benefits and pensions. Walmart is the future of work but it is a global trend.

“In the 1960s,  a typical worker entering the labour market of an industrialised country could have anticipated having four employers by the time he retired. In those circumstances, it made sense to identify with the firm in which he was employed. Today, a worker would be foolish to do so. Now, a typical worker – more likely to be a woman – can anticipate having nine employers before reaching the age of 30. That is the extent of the change represented by numerical flexibility.” (36)

Another form of labor flexibility is functional flexibility, that is, a change in the division of labor and shifting workers between positions. Functional flexibility creates job insecurity (as opposed to numerical flexibility which generates employment insecurity) through contractual individualization (or contractualization, as opposed to collective bargaining) and the general casualization of work. This also involves what Standing calls tertiarisation:

“Tertiarisation summarises a combination of forms of flexibility, in which divisions of labour are fluid, workplaces blend into home and public places, hours of labour fluctuate and people can combine several work statuses and have several contracts concurrently.


The flexibility involves more work-for-labour; a blurring of workplaces, home places and public places; and a shift from direct control to diverse forms of indirect control, in which increasingly sophisticated technological mechanisms are deployed.” (38)

Another source of the growth of precariat is wage flexibility. The precariat is especially reliant in wage income in the whole social income typology, so any shift in income – from fixed to flexible or through different schemes such as variable pay or merit pay. For instance,

“As workers in China agitated for higher wages and better conditions, multinationals grandly conceded large money wage increases but took enterprise benefits. Foxconn’s penned workers in Shenzhen had received subsidised food, clothing and dormitory accommodations. In June 2010, on the day he announced a second big rise in wages, the head of Foxconn said, ‘today we are going to return these functions to the government’. The company was shifting to money wages, giving the impression that workers were gaining a lot (a 96 per cent wage increase), but changing the form of remuneration and character of labour relationship. The global model was coming to China.” (43)

And this, of course, means greater insecurity at a time where globalization also shatters community ties that also constituted part of social income.

Unemployment is also re-construed through neo-liberal filters, and individualized as personal characteristics:

“In the neo-liberal framework, unemployment became a matter of individual responsibility, making it almost ‘voluntary’. People came to be regarded as more or less ’employable’ and the answer was to make them more employable, upgrading their ‘skills’ or reforming their ‘habits’ and ‘attitudes’. This made it easy to go to the next stage of blaming and demonising the unemployed as lazy and scroungers.” (45)

And the logical next step is a call for a reduction of unemployment benefits which leads to a vicious circle: a insecure and part-time employment rose especially for the low-en of the labor market, then unemployment benefits represented a higher percentage of income replacement. The conclusion should be that work does not pay enough, but no, media commentators would harp that benefits were too high and should be cut further and that the unemployed should be forced to take lower-paying jobs. But as Standing puts it, “the rich world’s job-generating machine is running down” (46) and this predates the 2008 recession. If anything, the recession has accelerated this trend by creating more zones of precariat:

“The unemployed also experience a form of tertiarisation. They have multiple ‘workplaces’ – employment exchanges, benefit offices, job-search training offices – and have to indulge in a lot of work-for-labour – filling in forms, queuing, commuting to employment exchanges, commuting in search of jobs, commuting to job training and so on. It can be a full-time job being unemployed, and it involves flexibility, since people must be on call all the time. What politicians call idleness may be no more than being on the end of the phone, chewing nails nervously hoping for a call.” (48)

The Precarity Trap

To live in precarious conditions means to have a lot of expenses that will keep one there, or what Standing call high transaction costs (time spent applying for benefits, temporary job loss and search for new ones, time and cost of learning on the new job and adjustment of all the other activities – such as child care – around that new job) that may very well gobble up a greater share of income. This is the precarity trap. And that is not counting the fact that living in the precariat means experiencing the full force of the risk society individually.

The Subsidy State

The global economy is a heavily subsidized economy (so much for free market) and again, that is without counting the bailouts triggered by the recession. These subsidies can take the form of tax holidays, various forms of tax relief or tax credits. For instance, schemes such as the Earned Income Tax Credit were subsidies offsetting low wages (gotta keep people consuming, even and especially at the bottom of the social ladder).

“Labour subsidies, including earned-income tax credits and marginal employment subsidies, are also in reality subsidies to capital, enabling companies to gain more profits and pay lower wages. They have no economic or social equity justification. The rationale for the main labour subsidy, tax credits, is that as the poor and less educated in countries face the stiffest competition from low-cost labour in developing countries, governments need to subsidise low wages to provide adeequate incomes. But while intended to offset wage inequality, these subsidies encourage the growth or maintenance of low-wage precariat jobs. By topping up wages to something like subsistence, tax credits take pressure off employers, giving them an incentive to continue to pay low wages.” (55)

Along with easy credit, and additional household income through women work, one can file subsidies are “ways in which we can keep people consuming and demand high with declining wages” which has come crashing down in 2008. That is also part of the may ways in which the state is VERY involved in sustaining the economy.

Under these conditions, of course, the precariat has an ultimate recourse: the shadow economy, no matter how dangerous or exploitative.

Or there can be riots.

The Tyranny of The Local

A few days ago, I made a point I have made before: that local governance is not inherently more democratic than of other levels (national, regional or global). This point was discussed over at Corrente where some were unconvinced and Lambert noted that, in the context of inaccessible national politics, there is a greater chance of control at the the local level… I would argue that this is true, if one belongs to the gender / sexual / religious / racial / political majority. Otherwise… well…

Example 1:

“The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community’s newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.”

Example 2:

“KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

Neither girl flinched visibly at the beatings, and afterward both walked away with their heads unbowed. Sympathizers of the victims smuggled out two video recordings of the floggings to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which released them on Saturday after unsuccessfully lobbying for government action.

The ordeal of Afghanistan’s child brides illustrates an uncomfortable truth. What in most countries would be considered a criminal offense is in many parts of Afghanistan a cultural norm, one which the government has been either unable or unwilling to challenge effectively.”

I am not exactly sure of the origins of the fetishism of the local but its most current incarnation is  prominent in the anti-neoliberal globalization movement (“think global, act local”) where the local is seen as the democratic antidote to “globalization from above”, that is, neoliberalism imposed by global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These organizations are often perceived as unaccountable, undemocratic and imposing one-size-fit-all policies on countries and local communities around the world.

The accusations are not unfounded, but just like finding flaws in evolutionary theory would not make creationism true, finding flaws in the current shape of globalization would not make localism the ultimate form of democratic governance.

Similarly, the fact that national politics is facing, in many Western countries, a crisis of legitimacy, as Habermas demonstrated, because it is seen as less responsive to citizens’ needs, complicit in denationalization of economic policy in favor of the global neoliberalism, does not establish the local as a more legitimate site of governance.

As yesterday’s book review on the MST shows, national governance is sometimes necessary to fight against local tyrannies (often disguised as “traditions”). This applies as well to the case of Nigerian children accused of being witches where salvation cannot be local or albinos in Tanzania, persecuted in the name of local beliefs. Sometimes, the regional level is the one that can apply true democracy or greater respect for human rights, for instance, as the European Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, local oppression is especially awful for women at the local level around the world. I could fill up the pages of this blog with articles just detailing the varied forms of local oppression of women and girls. Even the MST acknowledges it has a macho culture problem.

My point is not to assert that the local is bad but it should not be assumed to be somewhat more “naturally” fair, democratic and responsive to population needs.

Edgar Morin for A New “New” Left or a Fourth Way?

In an article in Le Monde, Edgar Morin outlines why the Left is necessary in current times, why it has failed so far and the challenges it needs to tackle to begin solving the problems of what he calls the age of barbarity.

Morin starts from the idea that there may be a unity of origins in the Left but a diversity of development. The unity comes from the Enlightenment roots and the ideas inherited from the French Revolution and the republican tradition: the aspiration to a better world, the emancipation of the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, as well as the universality of human rights for men and women. This common origin, in European thought at least, led to three types of political thinking: socialist, community and libertarian. In this common past, one finds of course, the main Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire and Diderot) as well as Rousseau, but also Marx an Proudhon for the socialist and social-democratic political forms, and Bakunin and Kropotkine for the libertarian forms.

The libertarian thought focuses on individual and group autonomy. The socialist thought revolves around social improvement while communist thought centers on the necessity of brotherhood and community. These currents are now, for Morin, in competition and they have been antagonistic in the past. It is time to rethink the Left for the current age.

The first challenge of the Left is, of course, globalization and the neoliberal age that unites technology and economic forms and has led us where we are today, into savage capitalism and biosphere degradation, along with warmongering from religious fundamentalists and nationalist xenophobes and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. These overlap to create very dangerous conditions.

But in Western European countries, it is not just globalization that can be blamed for the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, the massive deindustrialization / outsourcing / layoffs. Morin places the blame also on the incapacity of the Left and those who were supposed to represent the interests of the working class to provide an alternative to these challenges. In France, as Morin puts it, the communist party is a dwarf star, the trotskyist movement is long on critique of capitalism but short on alternatives and the socialist party… is there anything left to say on the sorry state of the socialist party?

More concerning, for Morin, is the disappearance of the “peuple de gauche”, that is the traditional groups that identified with any one of these three currents. Again, despite its diversity, the Left’s people was united on aspiring to a better world, based on fighting again labor exploitation, for welcoming the immigrant, defending the weak, and a concern for social justice.

Now, the main advocates for such a view – the school teacher as soldier of the Republic or the industrial union organizer – have seen their status degraded. What is left of this is a Left of the educated elite (“la gauche caviar”) that looks down upon the working-class, which then finds itself more at home in the racist and xenophobic parties where economic insecurity is translated into hatred against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants from Africa, etc. And so, one witnesses the success of right-wing and xenophobic parties in European countries such as Holland, Italy, Germany, and France. The lack of credible Left alternative is a component of the generalized crisis of legitimacy of parliamentarianism.

So, Morin advocates for a new Way (have we not heard that before?), one that unifies all the multiple initiatives taking place around the world to reform and revolutionize at the social, political and economic level. It is surprising that Morin does not mention the World Social Forum, in this context. All these initiatives – such as peasants and landless movements around the world along the lines of solidarity economics… also not mentioned by Morin – are completely ignored by dominant political parties and the media partly because they are compartmentalized.

Morin also advocates for local democracy. I have mentioned before my skepticism for this fetishism of the local. The local is not inherently more democratic than the national, regional or global levels. Many sources of oppressions are rooted in local communities and “traditions” invoked to reject universal human rights. Also, one only needs to look at the United States and its local political forms (such as elected school boards) to see how the local can go horribly wrong.

Morin also advocates specific criteria for hiring in public services administration as well as education and health care: compassion, empathy, dedication to the common and public good as well as concern for social justice and equity (which means no conservatives would need apply!).

Also, to the three threads of left-wing thinking mentioned above, one would need to add and environmentalist thread.

Finally, Morin thinks the first order of business is resistance to barbarism, that is every form of degradation by human beings against other human beings, resistance to subjection, contempt, humiliations for a better world. This aspiration has risen over and over throughout human history, and for Morin, it will rise again. I don’t think it will come from a core areas politicians (certainly not the current crop of US and Western European leaders), but more from people like Lula and other leaders from semi-peripheral or peripheral areas.

Revisiting The Global Imaginary

Last Summer, I wrote a two-part review of Manfred Steger’s book, The Rise of The Global Imaginary, truly one of the best books I have read in the past years.

In the latest issue of Global-E,  Steger revisits the relevance of the concept:

This short article is no substitute for the entire book that demonstrates in greater details the evolution of ideologies leading to a variety of global imaginaries. But in the context of the global economic crisis, fears of swine flu pandemic and new wars, the concept certainly has strong explanatory power.

If Free Trade is So Obviously The Best Option…

Then comes the not-really-rhetorical question…

"If firms have become so mobile as to make national regulation powerless, why are the Bad Samaritan rich countries so keen on making developing countries sign up to all those international agreements that restrict their ability to regulate foreign investment? Following the market logic, so loved by the neo-liberal orthodoxy, why not just leave countries to choose whatever approach they want and then let foreign investors punish or reward them by choosing to invest only in those countries friendly towards foreign investors? The very fact that rich countries want to impose all these restrictions on developing countries by means of international agreements reveals that regulation of FDI is not yet futile after all, contrary to what the Bad Samaritans say." (98)

Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans – The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and The Threat to Global Prosperity.

“My Six-Year-Old Son Should Get A Job” – A Wee Parable

Courtesy of Ha-Joon Chang, from his book, Bad Samaritans:

"I have a six-year-old son. His name is Jin-Gyu. He lives off me, yet he is quite capable of making a living. I pay for his lodging, food, education and health care. But millions of children of his age already have jobs. Daniel Defoe, in the 18th century, thought that children could earn a living from the age of four.

Moreover, working might do Jin-Gyu’s character a world of good. Right now, he lives in an economic bubble with no sense of the value of money. He has zero appreciation of the efforts his mother and I make on his behalf, subsidizing his idle existence and cocooning him from harsh reality. He is over-protected and needs to be exposed to competition, so that he can become a more productive person. Thinking about it, the more competition he is exposed to and sooner this is done, the better it will be for his future development. It will whip him into a mentality that is ready for hard work. I should make him quit school and get a job. Perhaps I could move to a country where child labour [sic] is still tolerated, if not legal, to give him more choice in employment.

I can hear you say I must be mad. Myopic. Cruel. You tell me that I need to protect and nurture the child. If I drive Jin-Gyu into the labour [sic] market at the age of six, he may become a savvy shoeshine boy or even a prosperous street hawker, but he will never become a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist – that would require at least another dozen years of my protection and investment. You argue that, even from a purely materialistic viewpoint, I would be wiser to invest in my son’s education than gloat over the money I save by not sending him to school. After all, if I were right, Oliver Twist would have been better off pick-pocketing for Fagin, rather than being rescued by the misguided Good Samaritan Mr Brownlow, who deprived the boy of his chance to remain competitive in the labour [sic] market.

Yet, this absurd line of argument is in essence how free-trade economists justify rapid, large-scale trade liberalization in developing countries. They claim that developing country producers need to be exposed to as much competition as possible right now, so that they have to incentive to raise their productivity in order to survive. Protection, by contrast, only creates complacency and sloth. The earlier the exposure, the argument goes, the better it is for economic development." (65-6)

Global Imaginary Rising

Paging Manfred Steger:

I would say that Gordon Brown is a bit late in the game as Manfred Steger made the case right here for Obama’s election heralding a new era based on a global imaginary different than that of the neo-conservatives and globalists.

We can also read this as a political move by a not-so-popular politician jumping on the bandwagon of a much more popular one. It still remains though, that Brown identified very quickly an Obama presidency as one infused with the global imaginary translating into more multi-lateralism and stronger global governance. In this sense, he is certainly trying to create a Brown-Obama axis with a global orientation that is markedly different than Bush-Blair. For instance, where Bush-Blair had the Global War on Terror, for Brown offers something different:

Note the shift to the realm of "ideas". Overall, gone is the dominance of military power as the main tool of the global order. We’ll see if this is truly an epochal shift when Obama actually becomes President.

After The Washington Consensus, The Beijing Consensus?

In Global-e, Michael Peters reviews the major postmortems offered by left-of-center economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, John Quiggin or Robert Reich. The consensus seems to be that we are due for an overhaul of the global financial system after what can be definitely be seen as a failure of the neo-liberal order.

And so then goes the Washington Consensus, to paraphrase a blog post by Tony Karon, written back in April.

And Peters concludes,

So, if the consensus seems to be that we can bury the neo-liberal order that has prevailed for the past 30 years of so, what next? What then? Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Alain Gresh suggests that we are now entering the era of the Beijing Consensus. What is meant by this phrase?

In other words, the Beijing Consensus represents a flexible (liquid?) structuration of relationships between nation-states, and here, Gresh asserts the failure of analysis of enthusiastic globalists who prophesied the end of the Westphalian order. In a non-polar or multipolar world, China may rise to dominance but not to hegemony and other countries of the Global South can also assert economic, political, or ideological power whereas the US, Russia and China still exercise military dominance.

Kemal Dervis on The Financial Crisis

Kemal Dervis, the head of UN Development Program, gave an interview to Le Monde regarding the impact of the financial crisis on the poor (yeah, while we were busy writing checks to banks, we kinda forgot about them) and the gist, of course, is that the poor will be hit more harshly by all this than people in core countries.

Dervis states that developing countries know that, even though they are not at the origins of the crisis, they will have to suffer its consequences anyway, with less means to deal with them than rich countries. The speculative crisis of the core will hit hard the real economies of Global South. There is a decrease in demand and growth and lower access to credit. In other words, they will receive less foreign investment, less revenues, and will see a decline in their exports. The failings of the core financial sector will hit the hardest in these countries.

Not all countries will be similarly affected, though. China and the Asian tigers will retain their high growth because their development is partially independent from core countries’ economies… good thing too, otherwise, it would be a worse mess if we had to expect a Chinese collapse.

At the same time, the G24 has warned that they will not be able to deal with the crisis on their own. Global public aid is roughly $100 billion per year. Defense budgets represent $1,300 billion and the different bailouts that rich countries will implement to salvage the financial system will be even more. On the other hand, in 2005, in Glenneagles, rich countries committed to $25 billion more per year to halve poverty in Africa by 2015. This is a moral issue: will rich countries use the crisis to get out of their much much more limited commitment to Africa?

When it comes to solution to the crisis, Dervis, unsurprisingly, advocates for a new regulatory apparatus for the global financial system strong enough to anticipate and prevent the next crisis. If there is one benefit from the crisis, it is the realization that we are indeed in a globalized world, all in the same boat and there multilateral governance mechanisms are needed though global cooperation.

The question then becomes who decides on global governance? The G7, the G8, a new G14 so desired by World Bank President Robert Zoellick? The IMF (that is, if DSK can extirpate himself from his current troubles)? What of the countries of the Global South? This is a debate that needs to happen and Dervis thinks that America’s attitude toward such multilateral cooperation will be central in this process.

Dervis closes his interview with a plea for supranational organizations that correspond better to our integrated and interdependent world (someone has read David Held and his Global Covenant… damn, another book review I should really get around to writing) rather than nation-based regimes.

“The Money Was There All Along”

This is your must-read of today, a brilliant piece by Chris Floyd:

"Perhaps the most striking fact revealed by the global financial crash — or rather, by the reaction to it — is the staggering, astonishing, gargantuan amount of money that the governments of the world have at their command.

In just a matter of days, we have seen literally trillions of dollars offered to the financial services sector by national treasuries and central banks across the globe. Britain alone has put $1 trillion at the disposal of the bankers, traders, lenders and speculators; and this has been surpassed by the total package of public money that Washington is shoveling into the financial furnaces of Wall Street and the banks. These radical efforts are being replicated on a slightly smaller scale in France, Germany, Italy, Russia and many other countries.

The effectiveness of this unprecedented transfer of wealth from ordinary citizens to the top tiers of the business world remains to be seen. It will certainly insulate the very rich from the consequences of their own greed and folly and fraud; but it is not at all clear how much these measures will shield the vast majority of people from the catastrophe that has been visited upon them by the elite.

But putting aside for a moment the actual intent, details and results of the global bailout offers, it is their very extent that shocks, and shows — in a stark, harsh, all-revealing light — the brutal disdain with which the national governments of the world’s "leading democracies" have treated their own citizens for decades."

Indeed, how many times have we been told that we had to tighten our belts, accept lower levels of social services. In France, we used to call "la rigueur" ou "l’austerite" and it was always needed, always temporary but never ending. It is right-wing politicians telling us we could no longer afford (insert name of your favorite social program), besides, supposedly, these social benefits only make us lazy and dependent (at the very same time that we were making great gains in productivity and often working more than ever.

And of course, it was all fine and good because the market would make us all more prosperous, trickling down economic, tides lifting all boats and whatever other metaphor was used to make us believe in the new religion (maybe it’s time to re-read Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God).

Globally, this was the Washington Consensus, or Disaster Capitalism or the race to the bottom. The global triade of global governance unleashed the same principles on countries in the Global South: tighten your belts, you can’t afford this free education or free healthcare and these national companies. Privatize was the mantra, along with deregulate, liberalize. Make yourself attractive to foreign investment… tide that lifts all boats, prosperity for all.

And the global corporate media was the cheerleader for this neo-liberal ideology of corporate globalism.

And you know what, as Chris Floyd brilliantly writes, the money was there all along:

"Let’s say it again: The money was there all along.

Money to build and generously equip thousands and thousands of new schools, with well-paid, exquisitely trained teachers, small teacher-pupil ratios, a full range of enriching and inspiring programs.

Money to revitalize the nation’s crumbling inner cities, making them safe and vibrant places for businesses and families and communities to grow.

Money to provide decent, affordable and accessible health care to every citizen, to provide dignity and comfort to the elderly, and protection and humane treatment for the mentally ill.

Money to provide affordable higher education to everyone who wanted it and could qualify for it. Money to help establish and sustain local businesses and family farms, centered in and on the local community, driven by the needs and knowledge of the people in the area, and not by the dictates of distant corporations.

Money to strengthen crumbling infrastructure, to repair bridges, shore up levies, maintain roads and electric grids and sewage systems.

Money for affordable, workable public transport systems, for the pursuit of alternative sources of energy, for sustainable, sensible development, for environmental restoration.

Money to support free inquiry in science, technology, health and other areas — research unfettered from the war machine and the drive for corporate profit, and instead devoted to the betterment of human life.

Money to support culture, learning, continuing education, libraries, theater, music and the endless manifestations of the human quest to gain more meaning, more understanding, more enlightenment, a deeper, spiritually richer life.

The money for all of this — and much, much more — was there, all along. When they said we couldn’t have these things, they were lying — or else allowing themselves to be profitably duped by the high priests of the market cult. When they wanted a trillion dollars — or three trillion dollars — to wage a war of aggression in Iraq, they found it. Now, when they want trillions of dollars to save the speculators, fraudsters and profiteers of greed in the global market, they suddenly have it."

And with that money, we could take care of the Millenium Development Goals . It is enraging to think what could be done with that same list in the Global South: provide clean water, sanitation, health care, education, programs for girls, infrastructures, and on and on. How about investments in scientific research for environmentally sustainable energy and environmental restoration and conservation?

"This is one of the main facts that ordinary citizens around the world should take away from this crisis: the money to maintain, secure and improve the lives of their families and communities was always there — but their governments, and their political parties, made a deliberate, unforced choice not to use it for the common good. Instead, they subjugated the well-being of the world to the dictates of an extremist cult. A cult of greed and privilege, that preached iron discipline to the poor and the middle-class, but released the rich and powerful from all restrictions, and all responsibility for their actions.

This should be a constant — and galvanizing — thought in the minds of the public in the months and years to come. Remember what you could have had, and how it was denied you by the lies and delusions of a powerful elite and their bought-off factotums in government. Remember the trillions of dollars that suddenly appeared when the wheeler-dealers needed money to cover their own greed and stupidity.

Let these thoughts guide you as you weigh the promises and actions of politicians and candidates, and as you assess the "expert analysis" on economic and domestic policy offered by the corporate media and the corporate-bankrolled think tanks and academics.

And above all, let these thoughts be foremost in your mind when you hear — as you certainly will hear, when (and if) the markets are finally stabilized (at whatever gigantic cost in human suffering) — the adherents of the market cult emerge once more and call for "deregulation" and "untying the hands of business" and all the other ritual incantations of their false and savage fundamentalist faith. (…)

So remember well the lessons of this new October crash: The money to make a better life, to serve the common good, has always been there. But it has been kept from you by deceit, by dogma, by greed, and by the ambition of those who have sold their souls, and betrayed their brothers and sisters, their fellow human creatures, for the sake of privilege and power. "

Emphasis mine. And so, we are made to live in the risk society, experience more and more precarization in the West and abject poverty in the Global South.

Will Hutton of The Financial Crisis

Reading Will Hutton’s column, it becomes clear why the current global financial system was unsustainable and is in the process of collapsing on a global scale. Who can make sense of this (which should be read in the context of my previous post on Wallerstein basically describing how dominant actors, toward the end of the B-phase, are grasping every straw to squeeze the last remaining profits from the system):

And then, this

So what is to be done?

Somehow, this does not seem enough. One would think that the call for global regulation and governance would be stronger. Heck, even a liberal (in the European sense) like Sarkozy is calling for a new Bretton Woods. But maybe, that is the problem of having weak or discredited leadership in core countries.

Don’t be so sure. The snake oil salesmen are just busy finding scapegoats and replenishing the system with taxpayers’ money. And if AIG is illustrative of anything, it’s that greed survives bankruptcy.

But as mentioned by Hutton, the problem is now global and the solutions (if there are any) will have to be as well. This is where the alternative globalization movements should direct their energy at this point. Offer their own proposals for the reconstruction of the system and not wait for the corporate globalists to just come up with more of the same.

The Cochabamba Effect: Re-Socializing Water?

A few years ago, PBS Frontline World was among the first program to clearly lay out the consequences of privatizing utilities and water in the Global South, using the example of Bechtel hiding behind a subsidiary to buy the water supply system in Peru. The consequences of such privatization are now well-known: shadow deals, guaranteed profits for the company (so much for free market), huge increase in the price of water, a lot of poor people who can’t afford to pay their water bills. In Cochabamba, these people got organized and fought back.

Since then, it would seem that the tide is turning on privatization:

This is another trend that will be interesting to follow: remunicipalization… returning control of water to municipalities to be distributed as a public service:

"In most countries, the expansion of modern water and sanitation systems happened as a result of public ownership and investment in response to increasing demand and public health concerns in urban areas. In the 1990s, however, many countries privatised their water and sanitation services, particularly in the South, as a result of strong pressure from neoliberal mindset governments and international financial institutions, to ‘open’ up national services.

The promises that privatisation would improve the provision of drinking and wastewater services soon faltered. Many of the privatised operations quickly began to show weaknesses as they missed targets for expanding and upgrading networks, introduced excessive tariff increases alongside connection fees which were unaffordable for low-income families. Management activities were not transparent and accountable. As a result numerous contracts with private operators were terminated often following popular unrest. Many cities, regions and even countries have chosen to close the book on water privatisation and instead embarked on remunicipalisation or renationalisation of water delivery, in which the aim is not to return to the pre-privatisation realities but to develop public-water systems that satisfy citizens’ needs.

Remunicipalisation is happening not only at municipal and community levels (such as in France or the US) but also at regional levels (as in Buenos Aires and the Santa Fe provinces in Argentina) and national levels (such as Uruguay and Mali). Around 40 municipalities and urban communities in France have already taken water services back into public hands over the last ten years, resulting in cheaper tariffs and improved services. Also cities in the US, large and small, have remunicipalised their water services as a reaction to poor service and excessive rates. In both countries, some of the private operators used sophisticated and dishonest management and financial practices to increase profits.

Meanwhile, diverse innovative public water management reforms have taken shape following remunicipalisation, particularly in Southern countries. Two good examples of this trend are the democratisation reforms of the Uruguayan national water operator and the worker-run company operating the provincial utility of the Buenos Aires Province.

It’s apparent that a global remunicipalisation wave is emerging. Powerful citizen-initiated campaigns in major French cities, such us Paris and Toulouse, are currently advocating the remunicipalisation of water services. In the US, remunicipalisation is being promoted in a number of municipalities. Remunicipalisation campaigns are also taking place in other regions, such as Córdoba (Argentina) and México City (México). Moreover, in some areas national coalitions are campaigning strongly for the renationalisation of the sector as seen in Italy and Northern Ireland. In Italy, a coalition of labour, religious and environmental organisations has submitted over 400,000 signatures in a petition to the Italian Parliament requesting a legislative initiative to declare the entire water system public property managed through agencies disciplined by public law as a way to improve the accessibility and affordability of water for the public."

This should be another data point in the questioning and challenging of the Washington Consensus and the policies of the IMF and the World Bank that have been dominant, supported by the globalist ideological framework. Such a challenge is promoted by equally globally-oriented social movements that have coalesced around the World Social Forum.

Here again, it remains to be seen whether the current financial crisis in the US, with global impact, will lead to a further eroding of the ideologies and practices of the Washington Consensus.

Book Review – The Rise of the Global Imaginary – Part 2

RGI Here is the second part of my review of Manfred Steger‘s The Rise of the Global Imaginary (part 1 here). In the last part of the book, Steger focuses on the sometimes conflicting ideologies derived from the global imaginaries.

Starting from the collapse of the USSR, Steger argues (correctly, I think) that the first winning ideology in the decontestation game was market globalism , the ideology that managed to decontest "globalization" in the limited sense of deregulated markets on a global scale.

To explore the tenets of market globalism, Steger reviews the writings of one of its main proponents and popularizers: Thomas Friedman. Needless to say, this is painful to read as is anything related to Thomas Friedman (hence no links), however he is indeed a central figure in the promotion of market globalism. He is also a good representative of the way this ideology was promoted by the political, economic and corporate elites in the 1990s (or the transnational capitalist class as Leslie Sklair calls this group, Friedman belongs to the ideological sub-group of the TCC).

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