In Europe the anti-capitalist/anti-globalist movement is talking of ‘precarity’. There is now even a San Precario in Italy. Precarity is the state of being experienced by casual and fixed-term contract workers, whose employment is precarious. Anxiety, forced competitiveness, a vision of life limited to the short term; all these are characteristic of precarity. San Precario’s banner appears at anti-globalisation protests, turning them into mock processions of the new (or soon to be) poor led into an uncertain future by their patron Saint.
The spirit of Precario reappeared in France in early March, when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin introduced his new remedy for youth unemployment: the ‘First Job Contract’ (CPE). De Villepin’s law allows workers under the age of twenty-six to be fired without reason, within the first two years of their employment. The idea is that this will encourage employers to hire young people safe in the knowledge that they can easily free themselves of a worker who doesn’t suit. Of course, others have argued that it allows bosses to simply remain free of obligations as they move from one twenty-four-year-old worker to another, providing a thin crust of employment rather than ongoing jobs. The strikes and protests that followed the passing of the CPE law, showed students and workers across France are prepared to resist a further increase in precarity.
France’s ongoing ‘reforms’ of welfare and employment, of which the First Job Contract is the most recent and inflammatory, have been justified in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘competitiveness’. These neo-liberal faith words are now familiar invocations, ritualised end points that mark the close of discussion about the function and effects of markets. They stand for our apparent covenant with the global market and the impossibility of thinking beyond its numinous expanse. They are the terms the Australian government has used in the attempt to smooth the rocky introduction of its industrial relations laws.
It is important to see these industrial relations laws as part of an ongoing global transformation rather than as merely the vented resentment of a local band of anti-unionists whose time has finally come. Over-personalising these laws by attributing them to Howard’s personal obsessions arrests our analysis at its first point, preventing a critical questioning of the cultural structures that allow such unpopular changes to be justified. It is, of course, vital to resist this Australian instance of precarity, as the ACTU has been successfully doing. At the same time, there must be a deeper questioning of the relation between market and culture, between what we buy and sell and the way we live and understand ourselves, a preparedness to offer a more radical critique of the present and explore social alternatives that go beyond the re-establishment of the erstwhile ‘settlement’ in industrial relations.
The other side of globalised consumption is a globalised labour market. The neo-liberal representation of the global market is as the ultimate horizon of choice that drives down the price of consumer goods. When the government compels Australians to remain ‘competitive‘ and ‘flexible’ in their work, we begin to see that the true price of the flat-screen TV is the radical commodification of our own productive life, made available to unseen others in places never visited. The hidden precariousness of over-consumption — its dire waste of resources, its reliance on cheap oil, its unsettling power to replace humans with objects, its abstraction of social relations from proximate persons to desirable images — begins to be made explicit in labour laws that encourage employers to participate in a transnational race to the bottom level of conditions and wages. It is not simply that workers should be protected from the arbitrary power of bosses; it is that we need a fundamental change in the conditions that allow such exploitative laws to be justified in terms of over-consumption. The extension of precarity, set out in the new industrial relations laws and reaching so much further than the French CPE, should be recognised as an explicit instance of the more general condition of danger into which the neo-liberal order forces us all.
Until now, the Howard Government has been able to foreground consumption and channel the other — anxiety- producing — side of globalisation into fear of refugees and terrorism paranoia. These strategies have worked because they turn the worry outwards, projecting it onto shadow figures lurking out there. Part of the reason for their success is their close fit with the abstracting logic of global consumption. Here it has worked to abstract real suffering and real danger away from actual people and into images. This strategy of directing the flow of anxiety might begin to fail as the industrial relations laws turn the fearful eye inwards, bringing precariousness back home.
As this Government loses its ability to balance fear and consumption we can expect its increased reliance on authoritarian coercion. The illiberal approach to industrial relations emerges in the illiberal atmosphere of security anxiety, as those students occupying the Sorbonne found as police ejected them. Both set the scene for a dangerous future, beyond our domestic troubles, that will accompany the real retreat of neo-liberalism as it approaches its material and political limits. The explicit manifestations of a generalised precarity are the promptings we need to call up genuine alternatives to that future.
Matthew Ryan is co-editor of Arena Magazine.