The Precariat and Basic Income?

Professor Guy Standing – he of ‘Precariat’ fame – has written a long article suggesting that in fact the Precariat class may give hope for change. They are the “dangerous class”.

It is a “dangerous class” partly of course to itself – suicide, self harm and drug taking are, unsurprisingly, prevalent. Also a section of them which he describes as Atavists (although, I’m not quite sure why) are those that fall prey to right wing pseudo fascist blandishments. The others are Nostalgics – keeping heads down and working on in the eventual hope of something better. And then there are the Progressives. These are naturally the ones he suggests provide hope.

Unlike the proletariat, which sought labour security, the Progressives in the precariat want a future based on existential security, with a high priority placed on ecology—environmental protection, the “landscape,” and the commons. By contrast, when confronted by a policy choice between environmental degradation and “jobs,” the proletariat, labour unions, and their political representatives have given “jobs” priority.


The precariat is a transformative class partly because, as it is not habituated to stable labour, it is less likely than the proletariat to suffer from false consciousness, a belief that the answer to insecurity is more labour, more jobs. In the twentieth century, mainstream commentators believed that putting more people into jobs and for longer was a progressive strategy—that doing so would provide social integration and offered the best route out of poverty. It was a trap into which many on the left fell.

Do I hear the current government suggesting that a job is the route out of poverty?

As he continues, this turns out to be a demand for Universal Basic Income (UBI) and so indicates why he is so criticised by the lovers of the Job Guarantee. Like Professor Daniel Nettle he considers UBI not as a simple alternative to the Job Guarantee but as philosophically opposed to it:

A transformative politics should promote work that is not resource-depleting and encourage leisure in the ancient Greek sense of scholé, the pursuit of knowledge and meaning, rather than endless consumption. That points to the need to re-conceptualise work, to develop a new politics of time, and to de-commodify education so that it revives its original purpose of preparing young adults for citizenship. Most fundamentally, such a politics must promote a new income distribution system because the reimagining of work depends on it.

I can only agree. After all, before the industrial revolution there were no unemployed. so therefore, in order to make a better society, Universal,

Basic security is a human need and a natural public good, since, unlike a typical commodity, one person’s having it does not deprive others of it. Indeed, if others have security too, that should increase everyone’s security, making it a superior public good.

This is certainly the argument that those of us in favour of a basic income need to actively promote.

It makes the Job Guarantee seem pretty stunted and pedestrian by comparison….



  1. Graham -

    There’s much to agree and disagree with here. The “precariat is a transformative class” – How many divisions do they have? Those is power have it all stitched up and without a real revolution of “the people” (who after all demanded Brexit) it ain’t going to happen.

    Yes, jobs for jobs sake and as a way out of poverty is a chimera, especially with the poverty of pay many of these jobs provide. But, many people like to go to work, for all sorts of reasons other than pay. But yes, lets build in more leisure – I think Richard Wolff who advocates Workers Self-directed enterprises says workers themselves would decide on the leisure/work balance rather than the capitalists.

    I still have reservations about a UBI and whether it could be at a level to make a difference. I prefer the model you allude to in another post of more free services and social provision encompassing, transport, employment, health, education, housing and so on.

  2. Peter May -

    How many divisions has the Pope is no longer entirely relavent, I think I’d have to say! What I suggest Guy Standing is trying to say is that there may be a gradual attitude change – not jobs for security as that hasn’t worked for most of youth, but real ‘social’ security.
    So perhaps a little more of, say, today’s bridge blocking might, indeed be on the cards? Because a zero hours job is almost no job at all so for many there is zero to lose. I agree if you have 3 children to suport that is a very difficult decision but less so for those that don’t.
    Some of course will just deal drugs and hope to survive, which, given government sanctions, is much more remunerative, and seems only marginally more risky – particularly if you feel generally unvalued.

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