"The Provocation of Precarity"

    Patrice Riemens

    History has it that when Margaretha of Parma, who was regentess of the Low Countries on behalf of her brother the Spanish king Philipp II, asked the Dutch nobility to get tough on their protestant-turning populace, their retort was that they hardly could do so, given "the precarity of their position and authority". So the people stood fast, and the nobles were 'precarious'. This was the late sixteenth century.

    In the early twenty first century, however, precarity has become a greatly more common situation, as ever larger number of people are hit by a not-so-silent 'revolution of the reaction' against the welfare state and all the promises of long term security it used to stand for. Today, socialism is for the rich (think tax breaks and 'corporate welfare'), while the public at large partakes in the thrills of the 'risk society'. Just read the Wall Street Journal and become convinced that taxes suck big time and solidarity stinks to high heavens.

    The French philosopher Paul Virilio warned for (post-)modernity's profound hatred of the future (and of the past as well) in its fundamentalist worship of profit in the shortest possible term at the least possible cost. 'Externalisation' is the difficult, and purposefully obfuscating word economists use to explain — or justify — Capital's jettisoning of next to all values that have made human society function and progress. But then, did not Margaret Thatcher famously say that "there is no such thing as society"?

    Another 'Virilian' concept is that of "endo-colonisation". Like prisoners of collapsing high-rises being told to 'invacuate' (to flee to the inside of the building), Capital is now going for the subjugation of all aspects of life in a move variously called 'colonisation of the mind', or more prosaically, the absolute rule of the market, and of its ideology, defined by Ignatio Ramonet as a 'pensée unique', or 'one-idea-system'. Why bother about a dearth of new 'real' territory to conquer, when a complete world is there to colonise?

    All this revolution quite simply means the end of work-as-we-know-it. Up to now, work was always a very important part of human life, but human life itself was split up in many aspects, both in time and in place. Similarly, human societies were carved up in various spheres of influence, by the (extended) family, the state, the church, culture, and of course also the economy. But today, global Capital ordains that everything is business, and all forms, moments, and environments of life either come up for grabs or are headed for the chop as unsufferable burdens on the sacrosanct law of profit.

    As commercialisation and commodification are going for the farthest reaches of human existence, Marx's dictum about the reversal of all values appears to attain absolute validity. And no concept illustrates this so clearly as precarity. Precarity is just everywhere, and we all are coming under its rule. And since this is deliberate policy, it signifies the complete reversal of the quest for security and well-being for the largest number which had prevailed since Enlilghtenment — ponderous pronouncements (Human Rights anyone?) to the contrary at the UN and other august, but ultimately irrelevant bodies notwithstanding.

    Hence, not only work, but life in general and in all its domains has become precarious. And all these domains are amazingly related, and deeply interwoven. This becomes crystal clear if we substitute precarity for that current buzz-word: flexibility. It is the term mainstream economists and politicians favour above its unfathomable cousin, as they hail flexibility as the supreme virtue and prime condition of economic survival - for corporate entities that is, never mind human beings.

    'Flexibility' at the workplace is a known theme, fast becoming a mantra, which even unions have started to believe in. But what when flexibility is also applied to health care? (only available when matched with 'effective demand'), Education? (only for a hefty fee, since it is an 'investment in oneself') Pensions and benefits? (only if you have 'capitalised' enough — and Capital has not squandered your savings) Knowledge? (no longer 'free', but the battlefield of a ferocious war around 'intellectual property') Habitat? (market conform real estate eliminates the 'distortion' of social housing) Culture? (now the realm of entrepreneurs, cultural ones, of course) Public Transport? ("buses are for losers" is another infamous Thatcher quote) The environment? (too cheap to plunder, too expensive to maintain)

    In this dispensation, urban centres are no longer social communities, but commercial ventures. Sicklish 'second wave' industries are discarded in favour of 'immaterial production', carried forward by 'cognitive labour' within a 'knowledge economy'. Competition runs out of control, and cities must become 'creative', yet another variation on the theme of flexibility, or fall behind. Precarity is the rule for all save the very richest and most powerful. Migrants, always 'precarious', but now increasingly victimised and criminalized, are at the bottom of the pyramids. And their fate actually awaits us all.

    To top it all, the increasing withdrawal of the state from its duties towards the citizenry as part of deregulation and liberalisation policies may be the ultimate form of 'flexibility' — as the authorities moves into more profitable areas ("the business of government is business") but retains the sovereign power to legally (if not legitimately) repress and oppress the people. And to that purpose, law itself has become 'flexible': infinite and indefinite, difficult to maintain but even more to abide, making everybody a criminal on probation and permanent internal exiles in the bondless reclusion of Empire.

    DaDaRa, the Dutch artist famous for his psychedelic dance party flyers, once made an coat of arms with the device "Yesterday is History — Today is a Gift — Tomorrow is Mystery". May be this is the best summing-up of contemporary cannibal capitalism.


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