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Building Occupational Security and Citizenship in the Age of Precarious

At the Labour conference of 2005, former British Prime Minister, the often-maligned Tony Blair imagined the Global Transformation of work and life in the Neo-liberal economy as a hurricane sweeping away the old order. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition,” he declared. “Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” In the Communist Manifesto, written in the year of revolutions in 1848, Marx and Engels spoke of the “pitilessly torn asunder” feudal “ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’” (J. Harris, “A precariat charter: from denizens to citizens,” The Guardian, April 9, 2014).

Today Neo-liberal capitalism, emerging in the mid-1970s, has disembedded itself from legal, moral, ethical and spiritual forms of regulation in its quest for profit maximization through innovative use of computer-aided forms of automation (including robotization and digitalization). Particularly striking is the gargantuan shift of wealth to the 1% and the political class’s (a fusion of political and economic elites) imperviousness to inequality and reducing insecurity of millions of workers round the world. Labour scholar Guy Standing has sketched out the new class formation of the Neo-liberal era. He speaks of the precariat, who live on intermittent work, have uncertain access to housing and lack access to various benefits (G. Standing, A precariat charter: from denizens to citizens. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Voices are rising against the shredding and tearing asunder of the societal fabric and disintegration of social solidarity—from the global scene to our local communities. But today in our age of hyper-globalization and identity politics, the workplace as the locus of emancipatory potential has all but vanished from our cultural imagination. All but vanished: in our Age of Precarious, some people here and there have tried to create co-operative forms of life and carve out niche forms of good, craft-based forms of work and life. Politicians, however, focus most of their easily distracted attention away from the unspeakable suffering of work, reformers mobilize energy mainly around ecological, identity or racial issues, and academics have been swallowed into black holes of hermetically sealed, obscure word games. However, one voice who has not caved into the seductions of Neo-liberalism to abandon imagining a just work world beyond the present is Guy Standing.

 Guy Standing, a British professor of Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, is perhaps best-known for his A Precariat Charter: from denizens to citizens (2014), Work after globalization: building occupational citizenship (2009) and the seminal essay, “Reviving egalitarianism in the Global Transformation: building occupational security” (2008). His reflections on what must be done to respond to the multiplication of inequalities and insecurities and collapse of labourism and the old systems of industrial citizenship are important beginning steps to rebuild social solidarity and a common world, both unified and peaceful. Standing believes essentially that the old industrial order security system has collapsed, leaving huge numbers of citizens without any legal or moral security and protection.

Standing turns the spotlight on the precariat. They are part of the growing mass of unemployed (or intermittently employed) and are often detached from old forms of social solidarity such as unions or vibrant local communities. Standing thinks that they are “denizens rather than citizens: people with restricted rights, largely living towards the bottom of a ‘tiered membership’ model of society, in which the plutocratic elite takes the single biggest share, while other classes—the salariat, free-ranging ‘proficians’, and what remains of the old working class -…” (Harris, 2014).

One of Standing’s first recommendations is that all citizens receive a basic annual income. This would reduce financial-anxiety and permit the growth of occupational and craft sensibilities. This policy (much-debated throughout the world, but no longer tossed aside as silly utopianism) would take steps to rebuilding social solidarity. Working within the premises of John Rawls’ influential theory of justice, Standing (2008) offers five important principles that must be considered when policy-makers begin to rebuild a secure society beyond the vagaries of Neo-liberalism.

The first principle is the “security difference principle”: “A policy or institutional change is socially just only if it improves the security and work prospects of the least secure groups in society” (p. 45). Here, the policy ought not boost the job opportunities of middle-income groups while diminishing those of the worse-off. The second principle, “The paternalism test principle,” states: “A policy or institutional change is socially just only if it does not impose controls on some groups that are not imposed on the most free groups in society” (p.45). Fiercely, Standing believes that all workers and citizens ought not be without “an effective independent Voice” (ibid.).

“Rights-not-charity” is the third principle. It states: “A policy or institutional change is socially just if it enhances the rights of the recipient of benefits or services and limits the discretionary power of the providers” (p. 46). Standing argues strongly that “social entitlements should be rights, not matters for the discretionary power of bureaucrats, philanthropists or aid donors…” (ibid.). People do not need pity, which is akin to contempt. Rather, a universalistic approach “emphasizes compassion and strengthens social protection through social solidarity and patterns of reciprocity” (p. 47). Hegel would agree! Here, the “right to work” is pertinent. If there is such a right (as part of occupational citizenship), then somebody is obliged to provide work. Employers can’t provide everyone with work. But the state ought to defend everybody’s right to claim opportunity to develop their work capacities. Surely the global left can unite around the idea that work should be designed to foster human capacities.

The fourth principle, “The ecological constraint principle,” states: “A policy or institutional change is socially just only if it does not involve an ecological cost borne by the community or by those directly affected” (ibid.). This principle is highly contested. Under conditions of Neo-liberal de-regulated production, jobs often take precedence over ecological care for the land and animals. In Canada, one need only mention pipeline and Native people in the same breath to set hearts palpitating. Standing comments: “For evaluation purposes, an ecological constraint principle means that any policy, such as transfer schemes or job creation schemes, should be subject to the constraint that they should not deliberately or carelessly jeopardize the environment” (p. 48).

The final, and fifth principle, is particularly important. “The dignified work principle” declares: “A policy or institutional change is just only if it does not block people from pursuing work in a dignified way and if it does not disadvantage the most insecure groups in that respect” (p. 48). In this principle two value judgments are made—work that is dignifying is worth promoting and the policy “should enhance the range and quality of work options of the most insecure groups relative to others, or more than others” (ibid.). Thus, Standing offers these principles as “a coherent set of principles consistent with a belief in complex egalitarianism in which the expansion of full freedom requires basic economic security for all” (p.49). These five principles form a necessary part of a moral vocabulary for our desolate times.

Standing believes that the “existing distribution system is unsustainable. The growing inequalities and the associated social and economic insecurities could foment such social discontent and self destructive anomic behaviour that even the winners will be ready to make concessions in the interest of stability and sustainability” (p. 50). What forces will initiate these depth reflective questions? What is in store for us if the status quo limps on and on and on? From my analytical and moral framework, justice and fairness in the workplace is a normative, universal demand for our bewildered and suffering times.

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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