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Guy Standing: Power To The Precariat

It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of it, but it is likely that you’re part of it. As neoliberalism rages on, the human scrap heap gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And this is creating a dangerous new class called the precariat.

Host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, to discuss.

Socializing risk

The economist and author, Guy Standing, has spent a large part of his life writing, thinking and campaigning about rentier capitalism which he has identified as the enemy of people and the planet.

The widely held notion is that we live in a free market economy which, in reality, is the opposite of the truth. Standing says that this can be best explained by events that go back to 1994 when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) guaranteed giant multinational corporations monopoly income by effectively globalizing the intellectual property and copyright systems.

Most patents are the result of publicly funded research. The public, therefore, underwrite this monopoly income so that corporations have no risks to bear. Furthermore, the extent to which the state subsidizes private capital has grown relative to the welfare state. What this means is that governments’ give subsidies to the elite and plutocrats that represent a huge chunk of national income, while less and less goes to benefits and public services.

Governments’ justify this form of wealth transfer on the grounds that it helps improve their international competitive position against other nations who are engaging in the same process.

What all this illustrates is that we don’t live in a free market economy, but actually a rentier capitalist economy in which increasing amounts of income and wealth is funneled to the owners of financial, physical and intellectual property.

As increasingly less of the total income generated by countries goes to those who produce the wealth in society, democracy is correspondingly undermined and shocks and chronic uncertainty exacerbated. Meanwhile, the position of the plutocrats and elites who benefit from this rentier capitalist system are empowered.

The rise of the precariat

The logical progression of the growth in the rentier capitalist system is the exponential rise in the precariat who, says Standing, are being plunged in their millions into a suffering lifestyle of diminishing incomes, increasing insecurity and greater social illnesses.

Ultimately, says Standing, the precariat will be subject to increasing levels of surveillance and social exclusion from mainstream society.

In rentier capitalism terms, says Standing, the precariat is the class that is most exploited in relation to declining living standards, increasing uncertainty and volatility. These are people who live in chronic debt and feel that they’re not going anywhere with the lives they have in front of them.

Being in the precariat often means that you also have to rely on discretionary decisions by people in positions of authority or power over you, whether they be an employer or a landlord, a bureaucrat, even parents.

Standing says people in this position feel like they have to ask for favours all the time and therefore they don’t have things as a right. This has consequences, particularly for groups who are chronically insecure, because pity stems from the reliance on others being kind. The philosopher, David Hume, taught us several centuries ago that pity is akin to contempt.

Standing says that not everybody in the precariat is a victim.

Many feel imprisoned by an economic and political system that makes them into victims.

There’s an emancipatory character in the precariat that wants to liberate themselves from what they regard as an extensively cushioned system.

This group of the precariat reject, not only the traditional political battles of the Social Democrat and Labour parties, but their use of alienating language and inability to identify the rentier capitalist enemy.

The precariat are aware that the political class invariably sell themselves to the plutocracy as a result of the political-corporate revolving door.

The growth in the precariat and rentier capitalism has accelerated as a result of the political response to COVID-19. It was this that prompted the author to update the 2011 edition of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

Standing explains:

“The prediction or fear that there would be a political monster has been realised in 2016. But now we’re in a new, very sensitive phase. I felt that it was necessary to spell out what has happened since 2011 and where we are politically. The book is really saying that we are in a very dangerous existential crisis that’s both ecological, social and political. We can either see a lurch to a neo fascist populism, which we have seen in many ways, or a new politics of paradise. And that’s what the book is about.”

Standing continues:

“There is no vocabulary suitable for the precariat. If you identify rentier capitalism and you see how the different forms of property are basically exploited and they don’t correspond to any sense of justice, then you can start having a proper language and a proper set of images to begin mobilising and establishing a sense of unity – a class for itself. We are at a critical point right now. I’ve been arguing for the whole of my adult life that we need to move to a new income distribution system.”

Basic Income Earth Network

To this end, the author has put his theories into practice by establishing an international network called the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) to test the basic income principle with others in four continents. Standing says that contrary to the claims made by his critics that a system of basic income will result in people becoming lazy and feckless, the reality on the ground is that they become energized. Standing is at pains to reiterate that people with the basic income work more, not less.

The author also debunks the claim that such a system is not affordable:

“With the pandemic slump, they’ve poured huge amounts of money into regressive job furlough schemes. In a crisis, you can mobilise spending power which would boost the economy much more effectively if you gave it to low income people because they spend on local goods and services.”

Standing adds:

“During the 2008 financial crisis, the central banks and governments poured out hundreds of billions of euros, pounds, dollars, for the financial markets – the rentiers. That money could have been paid out to ordinary people.”

In the final chapter of The Precariat, called The Plunder of the Commons, Standing looks towards longer term solutions:

“I believe every government must establish a Commons Capital Fund. The point is, that the fund can be built up from levies on people who are making money from our commons”, says Standing.

Ultimately, though, the author says that everybody has a responsibility to participate in renewing our democracy by joining organisations that are championing the interests in which we believe. Standing claims that there is now a momentum towards having a basic income and that there is a 50 percent probability that a major country will introduce it within the next two years.

The leading candidate for president of South Korea is saying if he is elected, he will introduce a basic income. Others are moving in this direction. We’ve legitimized the concept. All of us need to stand up. It’s not a dream. It’s something we can demand and get”, says Standing.

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