10 03 07
The Monster Precariat
Translated by Aileen Derieg
Day è un processo autonomo, una rete dentro la quale agiscono molti collettivi
e soggettività diverse in tutta Europa, a partire dai diversi livelli di
contraddizione che si vivono nei territori, ma tutti accomunati dalla richiesta
di un reddito di cittadinanza universale e da radicali pratiche alternative a
quelle dei sindacati e dei partiti della sinistra. May Day è ben più di una
serie simultanea di ‘parate’, è un processo ricompositivo e costituente del nuovo
proletariato postfordista. […]
Increasingly intense debates have developed throughout Europe over the past decade, ranging beyond the events of the parades to discussions, reading circles, surveys, leftist magazines and other publications, which have differentiated and made a critical discourse of the central concepts, but without seeking to rigidly define the terms.
Important lines of this debate have especially suggested deferring overly enthusiastic identification and premature generalizations under the umbrella of precarity. In this sense, the narrow geographical and historical boundaries of the discourse of precarization have been problematized, not least of all, in relation to gender and Eurocentrism. From this perspective precarity does not at all appear to be a new phenomenon; fordism could be considered more as the “western” exceptional phenomenon of the 20th century, which made precarity invisible in a certain framework or turned it into an exception. Conversely, it seemed expedient to more closely examine the new forms of immaterial, cognitive, affective labor with their continuities and discontinuities as components of post-fordist capitalism. With the discussion of precarious modes of subjectivization beyond the victim discourses in the context of the autonomy of migration, a precondition was also established to ensure that the extremely diverse forms of precarization, their differences and hierarchies did not sink into a precarious amalgamation. At the same time, it became clear that there was little point in making a rigid distinction between self-determination and external determination, to speak of luxury precarization and the underprivileged precarized, identifying the former with the “creative class”, the “intellos precaires” or the “digital Boheme” and the latter with migrants or the sans-papiers. Just as the complex situation in all these areas suggests making a connection between smooth forms of self-precarization and rigidly repressive forms of labor discipline, new modes of subjectivization also become possible in this setting. However, if precarization also means subjectivization and multiple subjection at the same time, it seems to make little sense to speak of “the precarized”. Instead of the victimization linguistically inherent to the use of the passive form, the term “the precarious” seemed to correspond more to the ambivalent situation. And this has ultimately also opened up the economic determination of the exclusive focus on labor, so that with theoreticians such as Judith Butler, Antonio Negri or Paolo Virno the precarization of life could also be more widely examined.
Whereas the conceptualization of precarization, precarity and precariat became increasingly intense and condensed in discourses close to the movement, its diffusion into other fields was apparently less successful. The most obvious example for the lack of a diffusion of the left-wing precarization discourse seems to be the deplorable debates about a “dissociated precariat” [“abgehängtes Prekariat”] that caused conceptual confusion to spread in large sections of the German-language mainstream press in fall 2006. This wave of disinformation and denunciation began with reactions to a study conducted by the market research company TNS Infratest, commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation associated with the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), and the study’s identification and classification of a “dissociated precariat”. The crudely formulated study separated “Germans” (excluding the population not eligible to vote) into nine political types, identifying the “dissociated precariat” as the ninth and final stage of this typology. The ensuing debate, characterized by SPD Chairman Beck as a “lower class debate”, left out no platitudes or reactionary resentments and had an impact not only in the political field, but also far into academic and intellectual contexts.
The quick assumption of the family of terms relating to the precarious in the German mainstream press ignored the left-wing debate described above and rooted itself in an ambiguous popularization of the academic social sciences discourse on precarization especially in France. In the German version of the radical reduction of terms, however, the group identified as the precariat was not only fixed – as is often the case in social sciences contexts – to the role of object and victim: the debate over the TNS study went further and constructed a new quality of lumpenproletariat and its exclusion from political agency. Once called “this passive rotting of the lowest classes of the old society” by Marx and Engels, the new precarious lumpenproletariat was now no longer described as passive and pushed into precarity, but rather – especially perfidiously – as self-victimizing agents of their own exclusion. The debate no longer involved exclusionary practices of the majority society, but rather, as Isabell Lorey critically remarks, only the allegedly felt exclusions of those affected, self-exclusions for which they are purportedly themselves responsible: “In this discourse in bourgeois feature sections the concept of the ‘precariat’ is intertwined for the first time in a negative way with a neoliberal, self-chosen loser existence. There is no mention here of resistive refusal, but instead there is a categorization of persons who must be subjected to increasing state control, due to an irresponsible self-responsibility, since they obviously do not allow themselves to be neoliberally governed.”
This continued discursive exclusion and the denunciatory figure of the imputed self-exclusion can be seen as an equally intentional and effective misunderstanding on the part of the normalizing mainstream, as a socio-political stratification that the center of society needs to re-constitute itself. Conversely, however, it can also be interpreted as a necessitated defensive, a defensive that becomes necessary because of the emergence of a new monster. The name of the monster is precariat, its historical model and striking surface is the giant proletariat.
Whereas the following involves an attempt to reconceptualize the concept of precariat, this attempt is initially based less on an etymological or theoretical genealogy than on the development of the terminology within the movement that has formed around it in recent years. In the preparation phase for the anti-G8 summit in Genoa 2001, a group associated with the media-activist collective Chainworkers in Milan organized a first Mayday Parade, at which in the afternoon of May 1st about 500 participants took up the more recent non-representationist demonstration forms of the anti-globalization movement, Reclaim the Streets and Gay Pride. Tying into the legendary US American union of the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World, the new tradition of May 1st had an international orientation from the start, seeking to address precarization as a transnational problem. The advanced precarization in Italy explains the early attempts to organize and mobilize the “generation of the precarious” especially in Milan, although their cry of “Mayday!”, both a battle cry and a signal of distress, soon echoed beyond the Italian borders. On posters, flyers, banners, however, the slogan was not “Stop Précarité” [Stop precarity], as it was first developed by the part-time workers at French McDonald’s restaurants in the course of a campaign in winter 2000, but rather “Stop al precariato” [stop the precariat]. This somewhat confusing and ambiguous formulation certainly has something to do with the various Marxist interpretations of historical concepts of proletariat and class, which I will thematize below, but also and especially with the different meanings of the current concept of precariat in different languages. The ending -iato in Italian, for instance, is more common than the German equivalent, so that the analogy to the concept of the proletariat is far less close than in German: “salariato” (cf. also the French “salariat”) means roughly the legally defined status of waged labor against a juridical and social-institutional background; from this perspective “precariato” is the shadow side of this statute without rights, which is to be fought, the spread of which is to be stopped.
A number of things changed in 2002. Not only did the influx of parade participants grow – especially in the year after 9/11 and Genoa, which is often described as the problematic, if not indeed traumatic break in the anti-globalization movement – to an astonishing extent, but the central slogan was inverted, so to speak. There was no longer any mention of stopping the precariat, but quite the opposite: “Mayday. Il primo maggio del precariato sociale” [the first May of the social precariat]. A twofold turn took place here: with the reference to the social aspect, the struggle and the reflection were expanded from the focus on labor to the precarization of sociality, of life, and most of all, precariat changed from something bad to be prevented to a self-designation. The “precariato sociale” became the common term for a multifaceted and diverse crowd, who did not describe themselves as victims, but as a social movement. This semantic transition was concluded a year later, culminating in the slogan: “il precariato si ribella” [the precariat rebels]. In 2003 there was already an indication of the spread of the movement, the realization of a transnational mobilization: the parade was announced as “la parade del precariato Europeo”, not only because precarization was recognized as a transnational problem, but also because increasingly more collectives and groups from other European countries were involved in organizing the parade in Milan.
It was almost a logical consequence of this internationalization that the transformation into the Euromayday Parade developed in 2004 through the first simultaneous organization in Milan and Barcelona. Especially in Barcelona there was a foretaste of a new social composition: sans-papiers and migrants, autonomists, political activists from left-wing and radical leftist unions and political parties, art activists, precarious and cognitive workers of all kinds formed a manifestation of transversality. And Mayday became European in a transnational sense. International Euromayday meetings took place in various cities in Europe, usually on the fringe of left-wing conferences and Social Forums. Following the meeting in Berlin in January 2005, announced as the “International Meeting of the Precariat”, the parade spread more and more throughout the region of Europe; most recently, in 2006, there were over twenty cities, although with somewhat different political orientations and varying quantities of participants.
“Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into worker. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends becomes class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”
It was not by chance that Marx wrote these lines, which were later to be refigured primarily to legitimate the Lenin party as the state apparatus steering everything, in his response to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty. The question of organizing remained a controversy between the communist and the anarchist camps across the centuries. Marxist-Leninist literature, on the other hand, quickly reduced the struggle and the process of constituting a “class for itself” to the opposition of the “class in itself” and the “class for itself”. A larger social group, parts of which live under the same or similar conditions, was described in this reading as a “class in itself”. However, the empirical objectivization of this group regards the individuals as unconnected with one another and unconscious of their common bond.
The classical example of the state of separation in its extreme form, which cannot even be considered a class, of the impossibility of intervening action and common struggle, is that of the French small-holding peasants. In 1852 Marx wrote in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants.” The small-holding is the paradigm of isolation. In the situation of spatial separation, the peasants achieve an exchange with nature, but not an “intercourse with society”. The concept of intercourse [“Verkehr”], which Marx also shared with his individual-anarchist adversary at the time, Max Stirner, here means something more than a common empirical class foundation. The arbitrary addition of similar units, in Marx’s image the many potatoes in a potato sack, does not result in a union, a political organization. On the contrary, under the radical populist government of the “second Napoleon” Louis Bonaparte, the small-holding peasants are condemned to isolation and separation, to the impossibility of intercourse and representation. They are even “incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”
In contrast, at least in specific Marxist-Leninist jargon, the class in itself must become a class for itself; it must become conscious of the common situation and develop strategies going beyond local issues. And most of all, it must organize itself. It is this aspect that first distinguishes the class for itself from people whose economic conditions identify them as a class, but who as yet share nothing because of their living conditions, who cannot found an organization. From this perspective, it is precisely the small-holding peasants’ absence of relations and communication, their extreme isolation that lacks the precondition for becoming a class for itself and makes every “mass solidarity” seem impossible.
The sleeping giant of the proletariat must awaken, must be awakened through class consciousness and party. So it corresponds less to the isolated figure of the small-holding peasants than to the state of the class itself, which must simply through the right form of organization come to itself, become a class for itself. Even though the conceptual analogy to the proletariat seems obvious, in comparison the precariat as a movement and organization of the scattered precarious is a monster that knows no sleep. There is no teleological movement here from sleeping to class consciousness; neither the empiricism of the class in itself nor the political invocation of a class for itself, but rather a constant becoming, questions, struggles. Hence precariat appears neither as an in any way empirically comprehensible problem nor as a future model of salvation. In this way, it is also by no means simply the other pole of precarity, in analogy, so to speak, to the class for itself in its relation the class itself.
Yet even the concept of the proletariat is obviously not entirely unambiguous. Two problematic versions of the proletariat haunt the thinking and actions of many leftists: on the one hand these are notions in scientific Marxism that identify and classify a clearly delineated group of people as the proletariat, on the other there is the canonized figure of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet there has been and still is a concept of the proletariat going beyond sociological fixation and political teleology that is to be localized in the proximity of a social becoming, as it is sketched in the image of the precariat as a sleepless monster: it is that which already conceptualized the proletariat as the struggle against classification, fixation following the logic of identity and homogenization, that to which the opening quotation from Antonio Negri refers in addressing the constituent process of a new postfordist proletariat, but also as formulated the Euromayday activist Alex Foti: “In post-industrial society, the precariat is what the proletariat was in the industrial society.”
As is already clear in the genealogy of the concept of the precariat in the Euromayday movement described above, beyond this formation of analogy there are substantial differences between the concepts of the proletariat and the precariat. The proletarian as a member of the lowest class, who served the ancient Roman state solely by supplying offspring (proles), from the Marxist perspective the waged laborer without ownership of the means of production, represents homogeneity in many respects: this figure of the wage-earner represents a normalized dominant, all the more so the proletarian “class for itself”, which results from the specific organizational forms of unions and mass parties, and most of all, it can only take up the struggle against the dominant class as a unified class. The figure of the precarious, on the other hand, indicates diffuseness, fragility, heterogeneity. The precariat does not represent a unified, homogeneous or even ontological formation; it is divided and diffused across many hotbeds, not because of weakness or incapability, but rather as a discontinuity of geography and production distributing itself in space. In a way, the separation and isolation of the French small-holding peasants is, in fact, repeated in postfordist conditions, and thus often also the inability to establish intercourse and exchange among one another. In this respect, precarization leads more to competitiveness, to lack of solidarity and to opportunism, even if some means of production and especially of communication are increasingly accessible to broader circles. Yet the modes of existence in diffusion also bear the potential of engendering concatenations of singularities instead of identitary and communitary forms of collectivization. Regardless of which form the concatenation of the precariat assumes, which forms of (self-) organization it develops, the concept itself indicates that it does not revert to uniformity and structuralization, to the schemata of molar and linear concepts of revolution. If the precariat is anything at all, then it is itself precarious.
The concept of the precariat becomes especially fruitful for molecular and transversal approaches to theory and politics in exchange with the complementary concept of the multitude, in the potentiality that its singularities concatenate into the precariat in all the heterogeneity and autonomy of the struggles. Both concepts, multitude and precariat, are not to be understood as sociological categories, as groups to be empirically classified, but rather as complementary: namely as potentiality and actualization of the concatenation. In this way they open up the vulgar sociologism that adheres to the proletariat just as persistently as the one-dimensional homogenization of the form of the political party or the state. If multitude implies the potentiality of concatenation, and precariat its actualization, both concepts are still real in the same way: the potentiality of the multitude is just as little the opposite of reality as its permanently emergent actualization in the formation of the precariat. In both concepts, it is not the quantity, the question of their maximal expansion, that is relevant, but rather their quality.
The multitude is to be understood in this relation as anti-identitary form and potentiality, which does not unify the many. It is clear, however, not only in the texts by Paolo Virno on the multitude, that the concept of the multitude is less suitable as a normative concept, that an ambivalence is inscribed in it that shifts and can be shifted: at one pole is the overflowing and interlocking of anxiety and fear (whereby this floating arrangement of anxiety and fear is not to be understood as a psychological category or reduced to a desperate struggle for a return to fordist wage labor circumstances), at the other pole is the potentiality of the development of a new, frightening monster.
Whereas the multitude can be understood as a possibility condition for the development of what is in common in the open process of diffused organizing, the actualization of this potential monster bears the name precariat. Precariat – to emphasize it again – is neither a state that empirically describes a class in itself, nor a function of the teleology of the class for itself. It is much more of a turn, a struggle, a question. It implies neither political nor conceptual closure and homogenization, but rather the development of problems such as the following: How can a form of organization emerge that fosters the exchange, the intercourse of differences more than unifying them? How can new means of communication be used for this organizing? What are the forms beyond state, party and union that emerge in dispersion, in a dispersion that is not only meant geographically, but also relates to the modes of production as well as the locations of production? Accordingly, what are the machines, in which singularities concatenate, instead of being put into identitary vessels? What type is the new band of the multitude that is not actualized as a homogenizing cohesion, but rather as a concatenation?
 “MayDay today is an autonomous process, a network, in which many individuals and different subjectivities operate throughout Europe: starting from the contradictions they experience in different spatial contexts, everyone joins in the demand for a universal basic income and in radical practices that differ from those of the unions and the parties of the left. MayDay is more than a series of ‘parades’ taking place at the same time; it is a process of recomposing and constituting the new postfordist proletariat. […]
For me, the precariat is by no means a matter of egoists or simply of individuals […] On the contrary, the revolutionary recomposition of subjects takes place in a sense everywhere, specifically in establishing what all have in common.”
 For an initial overview, cf. Frassanito Network, “Precarious, Precarization, Precariat?”, http://thistuesday.org/node/93; on the differentiation of the terms in English, cf. Angela Mitropoulos, “Precari-Us?”, http://www.metamute.org/en/Precari-us.
 See for instance the articles in the issue “precariat” of the multilingual eipcp web journal transversal, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704, the Spanish and Italian edition of the Mayday newspaper, published in Barcelona and Milan, “Milano-Barcelona Euro MayDay 004”, the Precarity edition of the Dutch Greenpepper Magazine from 2004, the special edition of the British Mute magazine, a collection of articles on precarity in the Mute issues 28 and 29 (2004/5) http://www.metamute.org/en/Precarious-Reader, the issues 02/05 (“EuroMayDay 005: mächtig prekär”), http://kulturrisse.at/1114329221 and 04/06 (“Organisierung der Unorganisierbaren”), http://kulturrisse.at/1168344588, of the Austrian journal for radically democratic cultural politics Kulturrisse, the issue of the Belgian magazine Politique, revue de débats from October 2006 http://politique.eu.org/actualite/43.html or the reader for the discussion series at the NGBK in Berlin: Prekäre Perspektiven, Berlin: NGBK 2006.
 Cf. kpD, “The Precarization of Cultural Producers and the Missing ‘Good Life’”, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0406/kpd/en, and Angela Mitropoulos, “Precari-Us?”, http://www.metamute.org/en/Precari-us.
 Cf. Dirk Hauer, „Strategische Verunsicherung. Zu den identitären Fallstricken der Debatte um prekäre Arbeit“, http://www.labournet.de/diskussion/arbeit/realpolitik/prekaer/hauer2.html, abbreviated version published in analyse & kritik - Zeitung für linke Debatte und Praxis 494, 15.4.2005.
 Cf. Vassilis Tsianos / Dimitris Papadopoulos, “Precarity: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Embodied Capitalism”, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/tsianospapadopoulos/en.
 Cf. “Die Putzfrau war präsent, aber wie sieht sie aus? Interview mit den OrganisatorInnen des Hamburger Euromaydays 2006”, in: analyse & kritik - Zeitung für linke Debatte und Praxis 504, 17.3.2006, online: http://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak504/18.htm; Serhat Karakayali, “Mobilität und Prekarität als Ressource in den Kämpfen um Migration”, in: Prekäre Perspektiven, Berlin: NGBK 2006, 136-145; Luzenir Caixeta, “Jenseits eines simplen Verelendungsdiskurses. Prekäre Arbeitsverhältnisse von Migrantinnen und Möglichkeiten einer (Selbst-)Organisation der Beteiligten am Beispiel maiz”, in: Kulturrisse 04/06, 22-25.
 Brigitta Kuster, “Die eigenwillige Freiwilligkeit der Prekarisierung”, /transversal/0704/kuster/de.
 Isabell Lorey, “Vom immanenten Widerspruch zur hegemonialen Funktion. Biopolitische Gouvernementalität und Selbst-Prekarisierung von KulturproduzentInnen”, in: Gerald Raunig / Ulf Wuggenig (Ed.), Kritik der Kreativität, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2007.
 In Roman law the precarium was the granting of a right, “obtained by entreaty”, “revocable”, “subject to revocation”, for which there was no legal claim. The term has increasingly appeared in social sciences contexts in the last twenty years. In the course of this, however, the widespread everyday term that could be used for anything has also merged with the precarization of work. This conceptual constriction was first discursively loosened around 2000 (especially in the strands of post-Operaist and post-structuralist theories) in the direction of biopolitics, social precarization and precarious life.
 Cf. Franco Berardi Bifo, “Lavoro Sapere Precarietà”, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/bifo/it: “Con la parola precariato si intende comunemente l'area del lavoro in cui non sono (più) definibili delle regole fisse relative al rapporto di lavoro, al salario, alla durata della giornata lavorativa.“ [With the word ‘precariat’ one usually refers to the area of employment, in which fixed rules in terms of working conditions, wage and working hours can no longer be distinguished.]
 Cf. Gerald Raunig, “La inseguridad vencerá. Anti-Precariousness Activism and Mayday Parades”, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/raunig/en.
 Cf. John Holloway’s relevant remarks, but also the aforementioned Marx quotation from The Poverty of Philosophy.
Aileen Derieg (translation)
other languagesThe Monster Precariat Das Monster Prekariat El precariado monstruo Prekariatets monster