This book by Guy Standing, a senior economist with hands on experience of the international labour movement, shares with Thomas Piketty, author of the best seller on wealth inequality, extraordinary importance for the left. His opening line states that ‘Around the world, more people are being turned into denizens; they are having their rights associated with citizenship whittled away, without realising it or realising the full implication.’
This is the Precariat: for Standing a potentially new radical underclass comprising of newly impoverished groups including the young unemployed from the old working class, migrants and the downwardly socially mobile but highly educated youth also experiencing insecurity and deprivation.
Standing’s case is radical and controversial. He says: ‘The precariat is beyond the stage of being a despondent mass of defeated people experiencing insecurity and deprivation.’ He believes this new subaltern class will give birth to a new progressive politics ‘as it swells to become a majority of the active members of society.’
The author recognises that the so-called ‘old working class’ may play a role in the emerging alliance of social groups with a burning interest in radical social and political change. But he may under-estimate its continuing salience as labour unions – taking advantage of an easing in the global economic crisis – begin to re-assert themselves. Strikes by US dock workers and threatened strikes by German car workers provide current evidence of this.
Standing argues for a ‘Precariat Charter’ to give expression to the political and social aspirations of the new under-class and which must break with traditional ‘top-down’ welfare policies. It should above all address the precariat’s insecurity through policies such the right to a basic income (something in the process of being adopted by the Green Party but is regarded with some suspicion by the traditional Labour movement.
The principle of citizens’ rights based policies in place of paternalistic ‘allowances’ or ‘benefits’ is potentially revolutionary. Standing rightly insists there is no one ‘magic bullet’ to answer all problems. But he has injected a new dimension to the debate on an alternatives to a corrupt, anarchic but visibly weakened capitalist system.