Here’s a few more notes on a point that seems to be made with increasing frequency: working for a wage has always been precarious. The current focus on precarity as a defining feature of our age is not unwelcome; indeed, its popularity shows that it clearly harmonizes with the everyday experience of many. The question is whether that everyday experience is so new; can a focus on precarity as novelty be crowding out important features of the transformations we’re seeing and what we can do about them?
Perhaps most generally, precarity is what it means to have nothing to sell but your labour power, to use Marx’s turn of phrase. Taken in this sense, precarity is wide-spread: today, the bottom 40% of Canadians today own a measly 2% of national wealth and the bottom 60% own just over 10%. The fact of owning relative peanuts gives precarity an important part of its meaning – it’s certainly nicer to live in a rich country, but the “outside option” remains the wage with all its attendant risks.
The fight against precarity is also the foundation of the welfare state. The welfare state provides a social wage in addition to the working wage and thus undermines precarity. Its genesis was an experiment in social compromise. On the one hand, it gave workers greater security – a springboard to potentially fight for more. On the other, it gave elites a tool to manage labour unrest, especially the wave coming out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the means to incorporate workers into new cycles of accumulation. For now, however, this experiment is sputtering. The last several decades have seen the breakdown of the compromise and, perhaps unsurprisingly, have brought precarity back to the fore, if for now in a more limited sense.
An argument along these lines is crystallized and developed in greater detail in a recent article by Kim Moody. It’s a rare piece because it takes seriously the empirical data that shows modest rises in what most people consider to be precarious work, while at the same time building a broader perspective on precarity that links the present with the past. His comments, while based on the UK experience, apply more generally across Northern economies and are worth quoting at length: