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GNOSIS 4/2006
Antagonism attacks the ‘precariato’

articolo redazionale

Why is it that in the antagonist areas, the expression “fight against precariousness” (uncertainty) has become the new watchword of the day? Why do we speak of precariousness when referring to subjects that are not strictly connected with “economics” (precariousness and repression, precariousness and immigration, precariousness of “education and human knowledge”, the precariousness or endangering of human rights)? How is it that a semantic extension of the concept of ’precariousness’ is in process, today? Precariousness and uncertainty – it sustains the thought of an alternative matrix- they form the heart of the post-Fordian economic and social system. According to this theory, in order that the “new capitalism” can celebrate its own glorification, it is necessary that all the obstacles which are put in the way of the unconditional affirmation of its powers must be swept away. It is not enough, therefore, to make production more flexible, to reduce the cost of labour, “disjoint” the union movement: it is also necessary to make fundamental rights precarious, to render their defence hazardous, to oppose the diffusion of knowledgeable criticism. Flexibility, in this sense, far from being an inevitable product of globalization, appears to be the fruit of a clear choice of political economics. And all this while we witness the appearance of a homo novus: an always more fragile individual, unable to project his own future, anguished by the emptiness of an uncertain existence.

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Precariousness: not only an
economic category

“Flexible, dependent, autonomous, coordinated collaboration, uncertain, intermittent, unstable, short term … in one word: precarious.
And this describes not simply our types of work, but it defines the sum of our existence” (1)
By now, the awareness that precariousness is not only an economic category is commonly felt among people. One speaks of the precariousness of education, of acquired human knowledge, of human rights; a process of semantic extension of the concept of precariousness is presently in act, which moving from the original work area has finished by hitting, in full, the political arena.
Everything starts from the post-Fordism affirmation. The present economic system is dominated by forms of flexible accumulations able to align and connect many different methods, times and production locations. The capital is no longer only “physical” (money and installations): its principle value comes from the sharing of knowledge and information. The offer does not satisfy just a general demand (mass production), but caters for the specific needs of the consumer upon request, (personalized production), in real time. To adapt to an elastic production, the post-Fordian work force must possess an elevated mobility of location and a strong flexibility. More and more, the workers’ tasks concern the sphere of abstract activities; parcelled fractions of information-work circulate on the global network and are recombined in a location different from where they were supplied.
In the post-industrial society, the ‘factory’ loses it centrality. People no longer all work in the same location, with the tendency to work all in the same way. Also discipline seems to break up. The flexibility of post-Fordism follows the Fordian rigidity. It becomes difficult for the workers to acquire their own identity, to express a sense of belonging to a particular class. Their contractual power weakens and they often find themselves having to deal directly and alone with their employers. The logic of the equal confrontation between the “capital” and union organized workers starts to fail: it is substituted by simple mercantile relations in which one of the two parts is in a clearly inferior position. The old conception of work, around which, in the last decades, an important part of union and political confrontation has been developed, risks being shelved, in a very short time.
These changes are interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. If the economists tend to read the post-Fordian model of production in purely cold terms of supply and demand, of balance between different variables, the antagonist world prefers, instead, a political approach. In the framework of a liberal market economy the price and the work factor are determined by the actions of the different macro-economic components and the work cannot be considered as an independent variable. Flexibility, from a free-trade standpoint, is, therefore, inveterate to the organizing and technological models of the 21st Century. The opposing analyses sustain that the economy, far from being an objective science, is instead, “a moulding technique of social relations”. The precariousness, from this point of view, is not a fatal sentence, but is the fruit of a precise choice of political economy: it represents the outcome of social, economic, legislative interventions which have first modified, and then, definitively sanctioned social relations of power in favour of the business concern. On the basis of this theory, flexibility has served to fragment, isolate and weaken the work force, according to the old logic of divide et impera. And the precariousness is not a condition of life inseparably tied to the economic paradigm of the post-industrial economy, but an astute stratagem with which the “capital” has intensified the exploitation of the work force (paying it less), at the same time, encaging it in the stranglehold of an iron control.
The “building” of the precariousness, according to the “alternative” thinking, came about on numerous levels:
- on a legislative level (Treu and Biagi Laws, in Italy, Cpe and
Cne, in France …);
- on a really more “cultural” level (with theories and slogans diffused by intellectuals and mass media operators, which made flexibility appear an inevitable product of modern times, a necessary evil which can only be partially remedied – the systems of protection or the social shock absorbers for atypical work).

Effects of the precariousness.“Actual precariousness”
and “perceived precariousness”

Independent of the causes at the base of post-Fordian flexibility, the effects on individuals of the precariousness of work (2) appear particularly serious. The sociologist, Luciano Gallino (3) in The Human Cost of Flexibility speaks of three kinds of negative effects:
- an existential precariousness due to the limited possibility of forming plans for the future;
- professional precariousness caused by the heterogeneity of the work experience and of the consequent impossibility of acquiring adequate know-how;
- a social precariousness consisting in lack of identity and social cohesion as a result of the absence of location reference points and stable relations (the factory as a place which favours identity formation).
For his part, the American sociologist, Richard Sennett, in The Corrosion of Character comes to a hypothesis of a probable anthropological mutation induced by the new life style. Flexible work would generate a homo novus devoured by the anxiety of an uncertain existence, diffident towards the future, incapable of solidarity and without any sense of belonging to a group.Up to this point, we have spoken of the effects of precariousness, but to understand the possible developments which could give rise to a social phenomenon, it is necessary to also analyze how the same is ‘perceived’ by its actors. ‘Perceived’ precariousness, in fact, results in being far superior to the ‘real’ precariousness (4) .
Flexibility is no longer limited, as it once was, to the subordinate classes (labourers and construction workers etc.,): it now concerns all levels of society, and in particular, the middle classes (public administration employees, non-permanent school staff etc.,). It is this very middle section – accustomed to the security of permanent employment – which is feeling major apprehension. Not to mention the many ‘atypical workers’ involved in the information centres which contribute to making the protest known and of guiding it in the right direction.
People are afraid of a precariousness which extends also to remuneration (flexibility means a generalized reduction in the cost of work), which endangers the assistance and social security given by the State. The precariousness is seen as an evil which accompanies all phases of the life of an individual, from the entrance into the working world until old age (5) .

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The precariousness: black centre in the
new economic and social order

The aspects already examined would be sufficient in themselves to make precariousness “a new subject of social conflict”. But the phenomenon is not confined purely to the “economic area”: in fact, we speak of precariousness of human rights, precariousness of education and human knowledge, precariousness and immigration. In the antagonist world, the new watchword is “fight against the precariousness!” The theme of precariousness constantly figures in union claims, environmental protests, and in the calls for the mobilization against “repression”.
The precariousness and uncertainty are seen by the “alternative” thinking as the other side of the coin of post-modern capitalism. The precariousness and uncertainty are seen as the means which the “capital” uses to keep the entire economic and social order under control. According to such interpretation, it would not be sufficient to “flexibilize” work, bring down the costs, to “disarticulate” the union movement. A total control – global – is demanded for the overcoming of every possible barrier. Human rights, their defence, knowledge and a judicious and analytical formation would constitute just more limits, as well as dangerous threats to the unconditional establishment of the power of the new “Moloch”.
Everything then, becomes precarious, hazardous and elusive: the right to work, the right to earn, the right to a house, the right to health. In the antagonist world, the fight for each one of these rights acquires the value of a battle fought in the ambit of a more extended war against precariousness and, therefore, against the “capital”.
Also, the relation between precariousness and “repression” follows the same logic. The arrests that followed the squatting and protests against the high cost of living, the sentences handed down for “aiding and abetting” crime represent, in the eyes of the dissidents, just more aggressions to render the rights of the exploited more difficult and hazardous to defend. In fact, it is not possible to put human rights in a precarious position without putting also their defence in a precarious position, and “repression” is interpreted in this sense, as a form of endangering the defence of human rights.
One of the most precarious categories is that of the immigrants. The lack of secure employment, besides producing all the negative effects previously examined, heavily conditions the integration process of the foreigner. The risk of expulsion, the denial of citizenship and the fullness of those rights puts the immigrant in a decisively weak position. Once again, an example of how the precariousness of a social group functions as an exercise of full power over it.
The precariousness, seen as an instrument of power and control at the service of the “capital”, cannot but intervene in education and its acquired human knowledge. In the antagonist area, among the students and university people, there is talk of the “re-appropriation of life time”, of the “conveyor-belt formative education”, of “reducing knowledge to a purely commercial value”. The imposition of rhythms which entirely swallow up all the time at the disposition of the young (the obligations of university attendance, the multiplication of courses and exams) and the binding study plans (the student is almost totally deprived of liberty of choice regarding the instruction he wishes to follow) would be functional in creating a new figure: that of the mass student of the precariousness, in the making. Why decided to “rob” and “manage” all the time of university students? Because they must become accustomed to being flexible, to adapt themselves to all and any outside input. In this environment they must deprive themselves of any conviction of being masters of their own future.
It is taught that time and objectives are defined elsewhere. According to this theory, the university prepares the young to become components of the precariousness thinking; culture is no longer the acquiring of knowledge and critical ability, but is the accumulation of technical notions (6) which are ready to be utilized by the business of the moment. In this context is found the hard opposition by the student movements, against the “institution of the university poles of excellence”, highly financed centres where research is considered in function of the commercial market and power.

Theoretic framework of the
phenomenon of precariousness

The phenomenon of the precariousness is understood from different theoretic perspectives. The Marxist component, to explain the existing changes, refers to the doctrine in which “the middle classes cannot exist without continually revolutionizing the instruments of production, the relations of production, hence, all social relations… the continual revolution of the production, the uninterrupted shaking of all social institutions, the uncertainty and the eternal movement distinguishes the epoch of the middle classes from all the preceding epochs…” (7) .
The transalpine students who opposed the CPE had as reference, besides the authors of the Frankfurt school, also French philosophers and thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari (8) and Guy Debord (9) . Their theoretic models appear to possess a singular explanatory value in relation to the present social and economic order. Deleuze and Guattari used the metaphor of the rhizome (roots which spread with multi-directional connections which make it impossible to understand where they begin and end) to illustrate a type of knowledge and many-centred societies, without hierarchy, which develop by themselves, through the sole non-preordained contribution of the respective actors.
Today, everything seems to be “rhizomatic”: from the Internet to the no-global movements. And it was from a spontaneous action – not preordained – from a multiple connection that the French March developed.
Guy Debord illustrated the characteristics of what he defines “the society of the show”. Fashion, publicity, the entire media system and its extensions offer a deceptive and seductive image of reality. This is indispensable because new merchandise must be produced and sold and because the market economy must reproduce itself. But the more the force of the images is established, the more the experience deteriorates: real life is replaced by its imitation.
An immeasurably great emptiness of sense emerges. To impede that the “living are transformed into the dead” Debord proposed, with an opposite process to the spectacular alienation, the creation of situations of breakage (10) (detournement), which “will recuperate” the natural life of relations”. The French students who fought against the CPE, understood, with a trial of strength, “to recuperate to life” an individual who was always more fragile, more precarious, exposed, on the one side, to the dangers of the post-Fordian flexibility, and on the other, to the totalitarian nature of the productive apparatus (11) .
The precariousness, re-confirms, in synthesis, the overcoming of an idea of modernity built on the great certainties (12) (the current philosophical principles of the 1800’s, positivism and the evaluation of human culture in relation to the historical background) and challenges the contemporary society to preserve its identity and social cohesion.

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Precariousness: what is to be done?

In a classic on the nature and role of rationality (13) , Friedrich A. von Hayek writes on “fatal presumption” of human reasoning: the idea of contemporary man to be able to evaluate, programme, bend to the needs and desires of the individual is considered as an act of ubris, a contribution of the French Enlightenment tradition.
To manage “the flexibility” directly and also its consequences, presupposes the ability of orienting the mechanisms of market economy in the direction one wishes. Only in a rigidly planned economy the work factor becomes a mouldable dependent variable ad libitum by experts and politicians.
Beyond this hypothesis, the prospect of a “piloted” and “non-experienced” flexibility remains: an existential and working condition to which individuals must best prepare themselves. If, on the one hand, the post-Fordian economy requires elevated professional qualifications, on the other, the precariousness of the jobs does not permit those who are already working to accumulate adequate knowledge and know-how. Therefore, it would be useful that from the first years of school, “formative courses of excellence” are proposed to the young, able not only to instil knowledge, but also to stimulate a sense of initiative.
Decisively equal to education and precursor of same is the role of communication. Institutions, mass media and families must be aware of the essential outlines of the new system of production, thereby putting on guard those who are preparing to become part of it. The problem exists and there is no “magic wand” which is able to solve it: facing it, however, is a task we are obliged to undertake, in order to impede that flexibility is transformed into precariousness, becoming, on the contrary, a stimulating factor in the area of a process of social mobility towards the top.

(1) AA.VV. Falso movimento. Dentro lo spettacolo della precarietą, Derive Approdi, Roma, 2005, p.61.
(2) According to Doing Business 2006, commissioned report of the World Bank on the business company problems in the world, there are many countries where it is possible to dismiss employees; Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Costa Rica, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait are some of the States where job relations can be resolved at the discretion of the employer. On the country, in Tunis, Nepal and India, it is almost impossible to dismiss an employee. On a scale of 0 (no obstacle to dismissal) to 100 (virtual impossibility of dismissal), Italy and France are placed in a middle-low position, with respective values of 30 and 40.
(3) Luciano Gallino, Il costo umano della flessibilitą, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2001.
(4) A measure of the existing difference between ‘effective’ precariousness and ‘perceived’ precariousness is indicated by the number of people who have resorted to the instrument of the integrative pension or have expressed the intention to do so: regarding a number of atypical workers, which is calculated, however, in Italy, as not superior to 15%, many citizens have taken out or are about to take out, insurance policies or other financial instruments which have a finality in social security.
(5) According to Aris Accornero, the precariousness is particularly felt in Italy, due to the lack of an “up-to-date public system of social security”, Aris Accornero, San Precario work for us, Rizzoli, Milan, 2006.
(6) It is the concept at the basis of the dialectic of the Enlightenment of Marcuse and Adorno, according to whom, in the contemporary age, knowledge is not needed to enrich and liberate humanity, but to serve the yoke of power: the acquired human knowledge which should indicate destinations, illuminate the paths of progress has been overthrown for technical knowledge, in the service of the “capital”. References to Marcuse and Adorno and, in general, to other authors of the Frankfurt School, are frequent among French and Italian universities .
(7) K. Marx and F. Engels: the Communist Party Manifesto.
(8) Gilles Deleuxe, Felix Guatteri, Rizoma (Rhisome), Edizioni Practiche, Lucca, 1978.
(9) Guy Debord, The Society of the Show, Massari, 2002.
(10) From which the name of the movement, Situationism.
(11) In our society, according to Herbert Marcuse, the productive apparatus tends to become total, insofar as it determines not only jobs and social attitudes, but also the needs and individual aspirations.
(12) Ulrich Beck, “ Work in the Epoch of the End of Work – decline of securities, and new civil commitments”, Einaudi, 2000.
(13) F. A. von Hayek, The Fatal Presumption, Rusconi, Milan, 1997.