Guy Standing’s book The Precariat (2011) is perhaps to date the most comprehensive and accessible work on the creation of the new social class that has been growing over the past two or three decades, and which has been described often by social commentators as “the new dangerous class.” When the idea was first put to me that the working class no longer exists on the grounds that the labour conditions that constituted it no longer truly existed I was shocked, indignant even. The old industrial proletariat – the traditional working class – was itself a condition of its relation to capital. It was marked by a socio-industrial continuity of labour in exchange for wages. The working class, along with the social identity it had constructed existed because capitalism existed.
Capitalism still exists, and so it would follow that the proletariat too must still exist, but – not entirely foreseen by Marx – capitalism has developed and changed. That is to say that the conditions which produced the working class have changed, and so these mutating forces are producing a mutated class of worker. Capitalism has changed in response to two significant historical shifts, the globalisation of the market and the re-financialisation of the corporations. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War opened the way for multinational corporations to expand from the western hemisphere into what had been a largely closed eastern hemisphere, bringing into the market the resources and workforce of the East.
Lower wages and production costs in the less developed East – Russia, China, and South East Asia – together with a moneyed consumer market in the West meant that the global corporations could rapidly increase their profits. From the 1970s more manufacturing jobs and services were being offshored and outsourced to developing countries from the West, resulting in deindustrialisation and a growth in unemployment. At the same time this was happening the corporations were able, with the use of their increased wealth, to free themselves from the banks and begin investing with the financial institutions on their own accounts. A wider global market of goods, services, and labour, and massively increased financial leverage allowed corporations to locate and relocate factories and networks of production with greater ease – a process which immeasurably weakened the bargaining power of labour forces around the world.
Neoliberal states, in order to facilitate the expansion of the corporations, liberalised their own national economies. Under the pretext of making national economies more competitive the Reaganite and Thatcherite dogma of labour force flexibility was introduced across the Western hemisphere. Programmes of private home ownership such as the British ‘Right to Buy’ initiative allowing working families to buy their previously state-owned homes effectively financialised the household by enslaving workers to systems of debt through the banks. After four decades of this transformation in capitalist strategy the working class has been obliterated. In its place there is a new class of worker with few rights, less stability of income, and far fewer social safeguards. This is what is now being called the precariat, the new dangerous class.