By Mark Featherstone
On 27th February the Sociology Seminar will host Guy Standing, Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, who will talk about his recent book The Precariat. The notion of the precariat, which first emerged in Pierre Bourdieu’s work on neoliberal capitalism in the 1990s, is particularly important today because of the economic crisis that has engulfed global capitalism. The concept itself refers to a global class of people who survive on the basis of low wage, unstable, work in the post-fordist economy where the need for labour is always uncertain and short term. For this reason, the precariat does not form a traditional class, such as the Marxist proletariat or working class, but instead comprises a strange shifting, amorphous, category of people. In this respect, the precariat is much closer to the Marxist idea of the lumpenproletariat than a traditional class grouping. Similar to the lumpenproletariat who represented the dregs of the Marxist class system, the precariat has no clear sense of identity, because the people of the precarious mass may have very little in common with each other. As such, the precariat has no clear politics of its own, but for this precise reason represents a potentially dangerous reservoir of people who might be easily exploited by powerful rhetoric able to form them into an angry mob organised against marginal others. In this respect Standing’s great worry about the precariat is that it may easily turn to fascism under conditions of economic recession. I agree that this is a real threat across Europe especially, where immigration is a constant cause of unrest. In many respects this shift to the right through the mobilisation of the precariat is already taking place today. This is not surprising. Psychologically speaking the impact of recession and economic instability on people who are already living on the edge is that they seek to save themselves by turning against others who appear weak, the losers of late capitalism. As Max Weber and then later Erich Fromm explained, this is the sado-masochistic psychopathology of capitalist society. The very competitive nature of capitalism means that it is always in danger of tipping over into authoritarianism and fascism when conditions become bleak and I have written about this very threat on the blog over the course of the last four years. Against this very real dystopian threat, Standing proposes a new utopian politics adequate to address the condition of the precariat. I think that the invention of this new utopian politics for the disenfranchised is perhaps the task of sociology and politics today. We need this to avert the alternative, a dystopian politics of sado-masochistic violence similar to those explored by Erich Fromm in his work on fascist psychology.
Professor Standing’s seminar will run from 4pm to 7pm and include responses from Professor Clare Holdsworth (Geography, Keele) and Professor Ronnie Lippens (Criminology, Keele). The seminar will be introduced by Dr Mark Featherstone (Sociology, Keele). There is limited space available for this event. If you would like to attend, please e-mail Dr. Featherstone at firstname.lastname@example.org