Attending the University of Hertfordshire Economics Society lecture today by the political economist Guy Standing, I found myself nodding almost on automatic at the key problems with capitalism and its impact on the workforce.
Standing started the talk with an anecdote of the day he recieved a call from Noam Chomsky (very famous thinker) asking if he could endorse Standing's book "The Precariat". Guy dismissed the call as a practical joke from one of his colleagues - it wasn't. Since them Standing has sold thousands of copies around the world, and today brought his key ideas to the UH Economics Society.
The Precariat, Standing posits, is a class in the making; a class of worker that has become habituated to accept unstable labour in the form of zero hours contracts, freelancing and piecemeal work. From the Barrista right up to highly paid management consultants we see this unstable labour market forming. Standing uses the word "cloud labour". Elsewhere this week heard it called "Labour Crowdsourcing".
We can now buy many forms of labour through portals. Just in the process of dealing with my late Mother's estate I used two new cloud services. Any Van provided a web portal for me to list my need to move goods around the country, and potential 'man with a van 'companies pitched for my business. The house sale itself was given to Purplebricks, the on-line estate agency. With very scaled down human interaction we were able to list the house for sale on all the online sites and sold Mum's house for the market rate to the first viewer. The estate agency fee at around £800 was less than a third of that of a high street agent. In my own industry, education, the Precariat is evident from the coffee shop workers to highly skilled visiting lecturers. The type of labour afforded by cloud labour is of course ideal for a globalised economy where the markets win out. Not so good for the people. According to Standing 1 in 3 labour transaction will be done this way in the near future.
Standing outlines the key characteristics of the Precariat. They are used to an unstable labour economy and unstable living, one step away from Payday loans and tipping into the Underclass. This comes with a social downside of the absence of an occupational narrative, lacking a sense of purpose that "I am something". The Precariat he says have to do a lot of work that is not renumerated. As a many times freelancer and entrepreneur I know the pain of putting in years of unpaid, or rarely paid, effort to crack a market. For the first time, Standing says, we need a greater level of education than is needed for the jobs that we end up in. And perhaps the worst characteristic he sites is the lack of access to capital - a class relying almost entirely on labour income, which in itself is insecure.
For Standing the rise of the Precariat is dangerous. It leads to a population that is alientated, despairing, anxious and above all angry. (Russell Brand wasn't wrong there then.) And according to Standing the anger is growing giving rise to progressive new political parties. Billionaires, he says, are for the first time starting to worry about how secure their gated communities are. Inequality has reached the stage where the pitchforks are coming for the Plutocrats. Standing says that we'll only get change when fear changes sides. When the Precariat cease to be afraid of the system - because they have nothing left to loose - the fear may swap sides to the 1%. Remember the French Revolution.
So what is the answer? Standing is a great advocate of the Basic Income. Experiments in India and Brazil, he says have proved that people become more productive and dynamic when they don't have to worry about survival. Actually it doesn't take much for us to imagine this is the case. From a personal point of view, and watching others around me, I can see that poverty causes inaction, fretting, and at its very worst hopelessness and addiction. I've seen it first hand. I am sure if you have eyes to see, you've probably seen it as well.
This afternoon I heard vocalised the kind of ideas that I thought only I had been imagining. Here was a Professor that had put them down in writing. Now as someone with some clear views on what ails us about capitalism it was partly comforting to hear those views validated. It also left me with a question as to how I can add my own contribution. I'm sure I'll work that out though.
In the meantime, anyone interested in how to bring about a more progressive economic order might like to take a look at Standing's work.
And written in conjunction with Renana Jhabvala, Soumya Kapoor Mehta and Sarath Davala a book looking at case studies of pilot schemes with the basic income in India.
I'm also very proud that the students running the University of Hertfordshire Economics Society were able to attract such a prestiegous economist to talk at the institute where I teach. It is massively encouraging that students care about the future of the world we are shaping. But wasn't that always the role of the educators and the educated to challenge the status quo and drive new contributions to an increasingly better world.