Precarity as Activism

By Sarah Charalambides , 1 July 2015

How do we turn the normalisation of precarity into a basis for collective action? While the social category ‘precariat’ grafted over differences, Isabell Lorey’s new book imagines how interlocking differentials of insecurity can be harnessed as a weapon of struggle. Review by Sarah Charalambides

During the past decade, the use of the term precarious spread rapidly in various social, political and cultural contexts. Because it represents a condition that is caused by a wide range of processes, extending across space and time, and played out over diverse and sometimes overlapping fields, the many levels of the meaning of the precarious are put to use in different ways. Consequently, the term flipped over and became a buzzword, a trendy thing to say in order to forestall rather than to develop analyses. To delay its further decay into an empty meme and to go beyond any kind of reductionist approach, it is necessary to work closely and more precisely on the ‘genealogy’ of the precarious. We need to assess in what precisely the precarious consists, where it begins and ends, and how we understand its full scope, mechanisms and particular implications.

Of all the thinkers engaged in the recent turn to the precarious it is political theorist Isabell Lorey[1] who offers a sustained rethinking of the concept and its different instances. In her first book translated into English, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, Lorey understands the precarious as a historical form of regulation that develops in a specific way under neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism. Today precarious working and living conditions are no longer perceived as a phenomenon of exception, but are instead in the midst of a process of normalisation, which enables governing through the privatisation of risks and self-responsibility. Drawing upon thinkers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Robert Castel, Hannah Arendt and Paolo Virno, Lorey explores possibilities for organisation and resistance under the ‘becoming-normal’ of precarisation, while anticipating the emergence of a new and disobedient self-government of the precarious. In doing so, she develops a pointed critique of what it might mean for people to identify themselves and others as precarious.


Lorey starts her book by taking three dimensions of the precarious into consideration: precariousness, precarity and precarisation. In surveying the various ways in which these terms have circulated, she establishes a new and useful framework in which questions of the precarious can be understood. Even though her complex configuration is not always easy to comprehend, Lorey manages to deliver a thorough analysis with great clarity. Following Judith Butler, she articulates precariousness as an existential category associated with the vulnerability of both human and non-human life. Precariousness is not something autonomous that exists in itself in an ontological sense. It is always relational and therefore a socio-ontological ‘being-with’, involving other precarious lives.[2] Subsequently, Lorey designates precarity as the politically induced condition of domination, in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to symbolic and material insecurities. As such, precarity is a condition of structural inequality. Through a systematic and violent categorisation and hierarchisation, social, political and economic relations of unevenness are produced.[3]


Lorey posits that the relation between precariousness and precarity can be understood through processes of subjugation. In the attempt to safeguard certain subjects from precariousness, privileged protection is based on a differential distribution of the precarity of those who are considered less worthy of protection.[4] Lorey calls this process precarisation. In our contemporary society precarisation is no longer a marginal phenomenon. In Europe unprecedented cuts to public services and education, austerity measures and debt crisis management are not an exception anymore, but rather the rule. Precarious living and working conditions are increasingly normalised at a structural level and become an important instrument of governing. That is why Lorey speaks of governmental precarisation, problematising the interactions between an instrument of governing and the conditions of economic exploitation and modes of subjectivation.[5]


Lorey’s analysis focuses on Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, which designates the structural entanglement between the government of a state and the techniques of self-government in modern Western societies.[6] According to Foucault, the governability of individuals is always also made possible by the way that they govern themselves. In other words, through self-conduct people become socially, politically and economically controllable. Their search for autonomy and ideals of self-determination are used in order to promote the conditions required by current modes of capitalist regulation.[7] Especially those who work freelance can be exploited easily, because they seem to bear their self-chosen flexible living and working conditions eternally. Due to strong self-realisation fantasies they are exploitable to such an extreme that the state even presents them as role models. However, practices of self-management in the reproduction of governing techniques do not only imply subordination, but can also have an emancipatory effect. By allowing people to take control over life and the way time is spent, the potential to refuse capitalist rhythms emerges. Here the ambiguous nature of governmental precarisation comes to the fore. It symbolises a contested field in which the attempt to start a new cycle of exploitation also meets desires and subjective behaviours.[8]


One ambivalent moment in governmental precarisation can be found in the context of virtuoso labour. Paolo Virno writes that labour in the neoliberal post-Fordist economy increasingly develops towards a virtuosic performance without products. Through this type of immaterial labour that is based on communication, service, knowledge, creativity and affect, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the labour market, self-improvement and social life. Self-relations and working relations are interlocking in such a way that new public realms are emerging.[9] As a consequence the entire person, their whole personality, experiences and relationships become part of the capitalist production process.[10] Nevertheless, virtuoso labour is by no means exclusively productive for a new phase of capitalist accumulation. Because the value produced by virtuoso labour cannot be entirely measured (i.e. it is difficult to economise), this kind of work can go beyond the terms required by the contemporary economic system. Subjectivations arise that do not entirely correspond to the neoliberal logic of valorisation, and which may resist and refuse its oppression.[11]


Drawing upon Hanna Arendt’s ideas of political freedom, Lorey explores the extent to which performatively virtuoso workers can become political actors. In doing so, she notes that there is no increase in politicisation solely on the basis of the increase in virtuoso living and working conditions that are based on communicative abilities, networking and social relations.[12] Lorey writes: ‘Even though it can only be carried out in the presence of others and often involves social cooperation, and though it is situated amid the materialisation of the social, a servile virtuosity concentrated in itself hinders common political action.’[13] In other words, only through non-servile and non-individualistic virtuosity a disobedience or rejection of capitalisable self-government can happen. Furthermore, Lorey states that it is only possible to intervene in struggles over governmental precarisation if political models are affected from within. Taking into consideration Virno’s call for a massive defection from the state in order to institute a non-state run public sphere and achieve a radically new form of democracy, Lorey posits a movement of exodus within power relations themselves. Instead of moving towards a completely new place where living together is reinvented, she suggests an immanent exodus towards a form of self-government that is not running away from precarisation but returns and reacts against it.[14]


Whilst Lorey continues to investigate possibilities for struggle and agency under precarious living and working conditions, French sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Castel claim the impossibility of (collective) resistance in the context of precarity.[15] With the erosion of the welfare system comes a destabilisation of wage-labour conditions and a renewed comprehensive subjugation of labour to the laws of the market.[16] This leads to what Castel calls a ‘return of insecurity’. Here, precarity has a negative connotation and designates a threat that endangers the immunising social safeguarding of the citizen.[17] As more and more people find themselves in precarious conditions, Lorey criticises Castel’s understanding of precarity as a non-typical situation. Precarisation is a phenomenon that is general to society and cannot be solved by a reformulation of traditional social security systems. Castel’s simple politics of de-precarisation, in which the threatening social margins heavily affected by precarisation need to integrate into the so-called social middle, will not work.[18] Instead of hierarchising precarisation into low and high sectors, Lorey proposes to go beyond striating classifications that separate the underprivileged from the better off precarious.[19]


For this reason she draws attention to social and political movements who thematise precarisation as the starting point for communal solidarity and political action. Movements such as the transnational EuroMayDay mobilisations aim to turn the multitude of isolated, precarious workers into an effective political agent.[20] However, in trying to bring together disparate groups in order to promote a specific argument, crucial differences are erased. The point is not to collapse various types of workers into a composite category, such as the much circulated term precariat.[21] Equally, it is insufficient to subordinate different labour practices to a single logic of production.[22] By all accounts, precarisation does not have a model worker; there is no precarious Stakhanov.[23] Consequently, a couple of questions arise concerning commonality within the precarisation debate. Can precarisation be used as a shared name for diverse situations? Is it possible to articulate alliance without falling back upon identity, without flattening or homogenising precarious situations? The search for commonality starting from differences cannot end in uniformity. Identitary and representationist politics are not suitable here. Given this, we might posit there is no common identity, but only common experiences within precarisation. For this reason we need to think about new forms of organisation, resistance and exodus in order to disrupt the mechanisms of governmental precarisation.


It is here that Lorey introduces the practice of the Madrid-based feminist collective Precarias a la Deriva.[24] Drawing upon methods of militant research, they explore possibilities for self-organisation and political struggle under precarious working and living conditions. The Precarias’ practice is inscribed in traditions of worker inquiries and co-research associated with the Italian workers movement of the 1970s as well as women’s consciousness-raising groups deriving from second-wave feminism.[25] Rather than using research as a tool to categorise and separate knowledge from practice, their research operates transversally. It involves becoming part of the process that organises relationships between bodies, knowledges, social practices and fields of political action. Significantly, the Precarias take the subjective experience of precarious labour as a starting point. In doing so, the production of knowledges and subjectivities of precarisation converge in the construction of a new form of commonality, one that involves many.


The Precarias’ practice consists in a revision of the Situationist dérive. While maintaining a multi-sensory and open character, they substitute the arbitrary wandering of the bourgeois male flaneur for a feminist situated drift moving through the everyday spaces of women working in precarious and highly feminised sectors. Through ‘interviews in movement’, the Precarias investigate the problematic status of care and reproductive labour done by women in the ‘non-productive’ sphere. Activities that were historically attributed to women, such as domestic work, nursing, child-raising, education, as well as work in call centres and sex work, have increasingly become part of capitalist modes of production.[26] Despite the insistence on the accumulation of ‘surplus value’ by care and reproduction labour, the feminisation, devaluation and subsequent de-politicisation of this work persists in contemporary society.[27] Notably, the feminisation of labour goes beyond the precarisation of just women. It describes the changing nature of employment where precarious conditions have become widespread for both sexes. Nonetheless, our modern society is still heteronormatively structured. Women’s responsibility for reproduction and care remains unchanged and the gender-specific division of labour is not suspended.[28] For this reason Lorey reflects extensively on gender inequality within precarisation debates, particularly because it addresses those aspects of precarisation that impact everyday life and social reproduction.


Lorey writes that the fundamental social dependency of a living being due to its vulnerability highlights the eminent significance of care.[29] By enhancing the status of care activities, the Precarias challenge heteronormative ideas of masculine independence and the feminisation of the need for protection. They aim to go beyond a limited and one-sided understanding of care, in which dependents are cared for by those who are independent.[30] As a result the Precarias break through existing logics of security and insecurity, and open cracks in the walls of fear and precarisation. Moreover, they rethink politics without rejecting existential, socio-ontological precariousness. They propose the concept of a ‘care community’, a new form of living together in which the relationality with others is considered fundamental. For Lorey the recognition of social relationality forms the beginning of an entry into processes of becoming-common.[31]


Still, the question remains to what extent dispersed precarious subjectivities can actually become common. If general precariousness designates what we all share but also what distinguishes and separates us from others by precarity, how can we imagine practices that are oriented not solely to the self and one’s own milieu, but rather to living together and common political action?[32] It is here that Lorey provides her most promising framework for those struggling under governmental precarisation. She states that it is precisely in the ambivalence between sharing and separation, commonality and difference, conjunction and disjunction that a fearsome and constituent power can be established.[33] By rejecting the immunising warding off and negation of incalculability, contingency and vulnerability performed by the state, the precarious have the potential to refuse to allow themselves to be divided for the protection of some against the threatening others.[34]


By means of personal and affective encounters with people that share the same condition, we can gather and act together, without necessitating a clear collective identity. It is through the articulation of a variety of lived singularities that the common question of the precarious can be addressed. Because a singularity never exists alone and independently, it always refers to a multiplicity of mutually interrelated singularities. Most importantly, a singularity is itself constituted by multiplicity. As Lorey says: ‘no identity characterises a singularity, but rather the dynamics of a unique multiplicity.’[35] As such, the precarious is in a permanent process of change, a process of becoming, a process of constituting. Specifically in this indeterminacy emerges a potential that can subvert the disciplining of governmental precarisation time after time. In this sense, we might go along with Lorey and begin to see that the normalisation of precarisation is not a threat to be protected from, but rather the conditions for an insurgent form of politics that could act as a basis for resistance against the conditions that produce (self-)precarisation.


Sarah Charalambides <s.charalambides AT> is a PhD candidate in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.



Isabell Lorey,  State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, Aileen Derieg (trans.), London: Verso Books, 2015. ISBN 9781781687147. 148 pages.



[1] Isabell Lorey is a political theorist at the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies in Berlin and teaches social science, cultural and gender studies at several universities in Europe.

[2] Lorey, op. cit. State of Insecurity. p.18.

[3] Ibid. p.21.

[4] Ibid. p.22.

[5] Ibid. p.13.

[6] Ibid. p.23.

[7] Isabell Lorey. ‘Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting.’ (trans. Aileen Derieg) e-flux: Searching for the Post-Capitalist-Self, no. 17 (2010): available online at: [18 September 2014].

[8] Lorey, op. cit. State of Insecurity. p.13-14.

[9] Ibid. p.73.

[10] Paolo Virno. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004: 52.

[11] Lorey, op. cit. State of Insecurity. p.103.

[12] Ibid. p.85.

[13] Ibid. p.87.­­­

[14] Ibid. p.101-102.

[15] Ibid. p.7.

[16] Ibid. p.46.

[17] Ibid. p.58-59.

[18] Ibid. p.6-7.

[19] Ibid. p.108.

[20] Joost de Bloois. ‘Making Ends Meet: Precarity, Art and Political Activism.’ Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (19 August 2011): available online at: [15 April 2014].

[21] This neologism brings together the meanings of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ to signify both an experience of exploitation and a new political subjectivity. In his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011) Guy Standing argues that precarious workers form a distinct social class with separate conditions and interests from other workers.

[22] Cf. Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter. ‘From Precarity to Precariousness and Back Again: Labour, Life and Unstable Networks.’ The Fibreculture Journal, vol. 5 (2005): available online at: [24 October 2013].

[23] Stakhanovite are model workers in the former Soviet Union, who were exceptionally hard working and productive.

[24] Precarias a la Deriva is an initiative between research and activism which arose from the feminist social center La Eskalera Karakola in Madrid, initially as a response to the general strike in Spain in June of 2002.

[25] Lorey, op. cit. State of Insecurity. p.92

[26] Ibid. p.94.

[27] Ibid. p.97.

[28] Ibid. p.69.

[29] Ibid. p.19.

[30] Isabell Lorey. 'Autonomy and Precarization.’ (trans. Aileen Derieg). In: Pascal Gielen. Mobile Autonomy. Organizing Ourselves as Artists Today. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015 (forthcoming): 48.

[31] Lorey, op. cit. State of Insecurity. p.15.

[32] Ibid. p.90.

[33] Ibid. p.19.

[34] Ibid. p.110-111.

[35] Lorey, op. cit. 'Autonomy and Precarization.’ p.49.­­­