These lines are an extraction from a longer text co-written by sociologist Pascal Gielen and myself for the book Commonism (Valiz, 2018). The original title of the longer version goes under the name of Precariat – A revolutionary Class and discusses how the difference between the proletariat and the so-called precariat, between the working class and the creative class, suggests that the political challenges that this current moment presents seeks other revolutionary agencies and methods of organization. We argue how such forms will need to go beyond trade union solidarities, Fordist economic structure, and more generally, the social state model and its welfare state. What follows below is the second part of the text where we reflect on Karl Marx’s proletariat to ask ourselves if whether the solution for the precarious creative class today also lies in forming such a class-consciousness.
From Creative Klasse-an-sich to a Creative Klasse-für-sich
At first sight, the remedies for this existential anxiety and specific growing precarization seem to lie in solidarity and collectivization (Neilson, 2015). Like Karl Marx, who advocated the (international) organization of the proletariat, which required the change from a Klasse-an-sich (class-in-the-making) to a Klasse-für-sich (class-for-itself), we may ask ourselves whether the solution for the precarious creative class today also lies in forming such a collective class-consciousness. However, a number of fundamental differences between the proletariat and the precariat make it unlikely that similar solutions for improving their social position are available. Already in 1983, André Gorz declared the end of the proletariat and of the work society. For Gorz, just like the working class was shaped by the rise of capitalist production, so the ‘non-class of non-workers’ (Gorz 1982, 68) are the results of its crisis and decay.Indeed, the global economic crisis has eroded the security of the Fordist model, initiating a restructuring by the state limited by austerity measures that have affected every aspect of our lives. Still, it is necessary to recognize how as the result of the labour struggles of workers in the industrialized economies, the generations of the post-war boom were able to enjoy a higher degree of security and enjoy a decent education. We are talking here of the unique growth of a middle class, who, for the first time in history, could coexist between a higher and a lower class. This was accompanied by a welfare state that was able, temporarily, to support their emancipatory project. In that sense, one of the first divergences between the proletariat and the precariat is precisely the difference in origin and education. Whereas the proletariat of Marx’ days, or the working class at the time of Pierre Bourdieu (1984), consisted of semi- or unskilled workers whose parents also lived at the lowest social level, the present-day precariats’ origins are more diverse. This group includes both the skilled lower class and certainly also the so-called creative class, which have a mostly middle-class background and higher education. It seems that the internal division of the creative class of today is too great a hindrance for developing solidarity structures like trade unions. A cultural entrepreneur may, for example, be totally deprived socially and/or mentally but still do very well economically. And this while someone else may be living on the edge of poverty for years but still feel mentally healthy and creatively dynamic. It may be thus difficult to reconcile the wishes and demands of these two creative precariats. Moreover, it is important to note that the process of growing precarization occurs as an effect of the disintegration of different secure class positions, including mostly here the middle class. As a clear example of how self-exploitation has become, as argued, the new type of oppression, economist Joseph Brusuelas (2016) keeps insisting on how it is the middle class that has to undergo fundamental changes in order to restore the economy’s most important growth engine. It is not that neoliberalism uses precarization as a mode of governing to keep the poor poorest and the rich richest, but rather it is the middle class that needs to improve, keep competitive, and become profit-obsessed if they want to conserve their middle-class position. This translates as: economy determines society and not the other way around (Polanyi, 1944). Again, although the members of the creative middle-class precariat have completed a decent education, they are not conscious of themselves as an object and thus, in Georg Luckács (1923) terms, they lack ‘true class consciousness’.
Finally, one of the most fundamental differences is that a working class of employees may confront their employers jointly and that the class of creatives of today, who, because of the prevailing freelance statute, are the employers of themselves as employees. This creative employer–employee has no other social class to point an accusing finger at. After all, the reason for their precarization lies partly in the risks that the creative entrepreneurs take upon themselves nowadays. Within the creative class the cause of precarization therefore partly lies in what we have addressed above, by using Lorey’s terminology, as ‘self-precarization’ (2015). Each of us is only responsible for oneself, and as philosopher Judith Butler argues, ‘that responsibility is first and foremost a responsibility to become economically self-sufficient under conditions when self-sufficiency is structurally undermined’ (Butler 2015, 25). By placing the full responsibility on the entrepreneurs to fulfil their own demands, overwork, frustration, and anxiety become naturalized and overshadowed by a state of ‘chronic insufficiency’ (Bröckling 2015, 201).
The difference between the proletariat and the precariat, between the working class and the creative class, does thus suggest that the political challenges that this current moment presents seeks other revolutionary agencies and new methods of organization. These forms will need to go beyond trade union solidarities, Fordist economic structure, and more generally, the social state model and its welfare state. As pointed out before, one possible remedy, especially collectivization and mutual solidarity, may nonetheless be quite similar. Obviating current politics of pure victimization, Lorey suggests to counter-act constituent power through ‘political practices based on the multiplicity of the precarious’ (Lorey 2015, 109). Resonating Butler’s proposition of precariousness as an ineradicable condition, and thus as a common condition, Lorey suggestsprecarity as a ‘unifying factor’ as opposed to a depoliticizing characteristic. In other words, the individual, independently of social group or class, becomes part of the precarious collective and hence acquires political agency.The common is produced through the communication among singularities (Hardt and Negri, 2004) and precarity becomes a unifying and empowering commonality; a fearsome mode of constituting that allows searching for alternatives and inventing new forms of immunization that directly negates vulnerability and contingency (Lorey, 2015). Crucial to emphasize here is how both Butler and Lorey understand ‘composition’ as a resistive moment, forms of coalition in the contemporary politics based on ‘bodies in alliance’ (Butler, 2004) against a common economic precarity. Following this idea, we henceforth propose that rather than understanding the Precariat as a ‘class in the making’ (Klass-an-sich), we understand precarity as a point of articulation, a negative moment of insubordination, towards the formation of a society based on common principles. Put another way, a common precarious condition becomes a starting point from where to start testing new collective identities and forms of organization, creative platforms of resistance and more collaborative social forms, which brings us to principles of commoning and commonism.