The Insecurity Lasts a Long Time

By Anthony Iles, 9 February 2005

Anthony Iles reviews Republicart's issue on precarious labour

Republicart is a multi-lingual online journal, publishing articles on the intersection of activist and artistic projects loosely theorised by its editorial as public art. The site is a container for a number of EU funded projects and research on fairly commonplace themes: cultural networking, public space, and social engagement. However, Republicart’s recent issue focusing on the ‘Precariat’ – a subject it proposes as the new proletariat of informal and casualised labour – arrives at a moment when discussion about the condition of human capital and its capacity for action comprises what the editorial rightly calls a ‘concatenation’ of theories and practices. ‘Precariousness’ and ‘precarious work’ have rapidly become terms for thinking through the collapse of the distinction between labour and non-labour and the expansion of capitalist forms of valorisation over all aspects of life. Precariousness names a situation in which, for an increasing number of workers, temporary, ‘atypical’, workfare or contract work are the bread and butter served on a plate of social insecurity.

Republicart’s precariat issue brings together recent material by, and reports on, groups and movements, which adopt the term ‘precarious’ to describe and theorise their struggle within and against contemporary capitalism. It forcefully advances the idea that the precariat consitutes an emerging social movement, but essentially evades a proper analysis of exactly who is precarious and why.

Precarias a la Deriva’s text on the Republicart site, ‘Adrift Through the Circuits of Feminised Precarious Work’, problematises the condition of precariousness as one in which the negative and positive poles of flexibility are inextricable, the conflict between commonality and singularity constant. Their situation bespeaks both a lack and an excess of ‘work’, a generalisation of instability combined with the ‘cognitisation’ of everyday tasks and jobs. They are the first to point to the difficulties of organising on the basis of ‘a precariousness which can do without a clear collective identity in which to simplify and defend itself.’

Elsewhere on the Republicart site, in his account of EuroMayday 2004, Gerald Raunig quickly shrugs off the difficulty of political organising per se for the atomised and time poor casual worker. Coordinated between Barcelona and Milan, various species of precarie – chainworkers, intermittents, flexworkers and scientific researchers – occupied the streets and the internet in actions ‘against the growing precariousness of life.’ In Barcelona, the protest developed out of converging struggles against The Forum, a kind of Neoliberal World’s Fair, which encountered formidable resistance from those whose lives it attempted to flatten under a dazzling vision of Barcelona as a city of culture. At the same time, in Milan, the Chainworkers, a group of media and labour activists supporting struggles of the non-unionised, blockaded department stores, employment agencies, malls and fast food chains to disrupt and contest the exploitation and flexibilisation of service, migrant and knowledge workers. The potential for organisation amongst chainstore workers in particular, as Raunig asserts, seems rich in opportunities, sharing as they do wage-levels, standardisation of tasks, and boredom. As the Chainworkers’ Alex Foti has pointed out, unlike workers in factories whose employers can shift production elsewhere (outsourcing overseas, etc), their employers are rooted to the site of consumption of the goods they sell, making them an easy target and an ideal point for the generalisation of this kind of action.

Also involved in EuroMayday 2004 and represented on the Republicart site by their text ‘The Spectacle Inside the State and Out’, the French entertainment workers participating in the Coordination des Intermittents et Precaires have combined the defence of their established legal rights (until recently they received annual unemployment benefits as occasional workers in the arts) with the assertion that they constitute part of a new class of flexible labour. Regarded by the major French unions as an undesirable anomaly, Les Intermittents’ challenge to economic determinism and the deregulation of social rights has led to a national debate on the very role of knowledge and culture in France. This debate continues to be elaborated by the research groups initiated across the Coordination des Intermittents. Whilst it remains to be seen whether their actions successfully restore their particular form of ‘dole autonomy’, more importantly they have continued to develop avenues of conflict outside of their initial confrontation with the state in a process Maurizio Lazzarato has called ‘a deregulation of conflict.’

Groups such as the Intermittents, Precarias a la Deriva and Chainworkers are working in situations where union support is not an option, but little space is given in Republicart as to why this is so, or how unions might respond to the growing pressure from sectors they have hitherto seen as marginal. Whilst the actions of the Chainworkers and Intermittents do go beyond the tradition of union activism there is little evidence for this here. The examples Republicart draws on are indications of a social movement in formation, but for the moment the figure of the precariat remains a contentious one. If Republicart is positing the precariat as a new kind of proletariat then where is the discussion of the composition of this new class? The site’s predilection for artistic examples of precariousness has led them to overlook the work of other groups such as Precari Nati and Kolinko (see Mute issue 28), whose analysis of contemporary labour conditions draws on a much more rigorous investigation of how capitalism contains and exploits the energies of the social body and the various forms of refusal it encounters. Casting the precariat’s struggle in terms of battles for better legislation misses the opportunity to investigate the tendency for self-organised (or ‘disorganised’) labour to develop a more generalised struggle than the demand for employment and social rights, breaking with the capitalist organisation of work altogether.

LINKS Republicart

Barcelona Forum

and Counter-Forum

Euromayday 2004

Stop The Clock, Aufheben pamphlet, 2000, by Precari Nati, Wildcat, Aufheben et al

‘L’intermittence et la puissance de métamorphose’, Maurizio Lazzarato,

Unionising Workshop at Flaxman Lodge

Greenpepper Magazine

Republicart Precarity issue

Anthony Iles <Anthony_iles AT> is variously a writer, librarian, assistant editor of Mute and member of Gratipalis[t]a Sound System