Professor, Cultural Anthropology, Duke University
Precarity is a word of the times. Picked up first by European social and labor movements in the 1970s, precaritè indexes shifts in late-stage capitalism toward more flexible, contingent, and irregular work. At its base, precarity refers to conditions of work that are precarious; precarious work is “employment that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky from the point of view of the worker” (Kalleberg 2009, 2). By this definition, most work for most workers around the world has been historically precarious, which makes precarity less the expectation than the rule (Neilson and Rossiter 2008). Half of all workers in the world today work in the informal economy that is, by definition, precarious (Standing 2011). But, in those countries, as in North America, western Europe, and Japan, that enjoyed a period of postwar Fordism that accorded its worker citizens (in the core workforce at least) secure employment, it is the deviation from this norm that the term precarity (and the precariat as the precarious proletariat of irregular workers) in large part refers. Precarity references a particular notion of, and social contract around, work. Work that is secure; work that secures not only income and job but identity and lifestyle, linking capitalism and intimacy in an affective desire for security itself (Berlant 2011). Precarity marks the loss of this—the loss of something that only certain countries, at certain historical periods, and certain workers ever had in the first place.
Precarity references a particular notion of, and social contract around, work. Work that is secure; work that secures not only income and job but identity and lifestyle, linking capitalism and intimacy in an affective desire for security itself.
The French term precaritè was first coined in Europe by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1998) and Italian theorists and activists identified as Autonomist Marxists (including Paolo Virno, Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, and Franco “Bifo” Berardi). Referencing transformations triggered in advanced capitalist economies by globalization, information technologies, and the rise of immaterial labor, the term encompassed a diverse range of jobs, workers, and aspects of the transforming labor market. One key focus was workers in the so-called creative and cognitive industries (the “cognitariat”) and those doing affective, linguistic, service, and care labor—those for whom work capitalizes on what was once nonwork in the way of the personal, the creative, and the everyday. These may, though not necessarily, be higher-skilled and potentially higher-waged workers such as those in the IT industries of Silicon Valley. But precaritè also referenced shifts in production itself, often lumped under the rubric of post-Fordism, that incorporated new business techniques such as outsourcing and diversification of holdings. Workers—and the work they do—get juggled in the process, as does the reliance upon a peripheral versus core workforce: hiring more and more workers on a contingent basis who can be easily let go and given no (or little) security in the way of benefits and steady employment. Considering the implications this has for labor activism has been a key concern of the Autonomists given that, with fewer workers working long-term jobs at the same place and with the rise of market sovereignty (“neoliberalism”) accompanied by a decrease of Keynesian provisions for social welfare and worker support, the old model of trade unions has been in general decline (Neilson and Rossiter 2008).
Though in usage since the 1980s, precaritè, particularly under its English neologism—“precarity”—has gained far more prominence in recent years, starting in about 2004. Claimed by social movements and autonomous political groups in western Europe, the notion of precarity has been the banner for a host of protests, political debate, and events such as EuroMay Day (starting in Milan and Barcelona in 2004, spreading to seventeen European cities in 2005, and still going on), Precarity Ping Pong (London, October 2004), the International Meeting of the Precariat (Berlin, January 2005), and Precair Forum (Amsterdam, February 2005). However, the rubric of precarity is as elastic as it is contested. For the Madrid-based group Precaria all Deriva, for example, the term is reserved for the feminization of precarious work. By contrast, Guy Standing, the author of Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011), uses precarity to designate a host of different categories and types of labor/laborer, including academics who face the prospect of irregular teaching jobs for the duration of their careers. Using the word “denizen” for those denied the status (literally or figurative) of citizenship in economies where work is critically important for securitizing livelihood, he treats the precariat as a subjectivity that is spreading globally—and across old distinctions of class, ethnicity, and privilege. Calling the precariat a “class in the making,” he questions how, and whether, they can exert pressure on employers, governments, or transnational bodies of various kinds to demand more secure conditions/compensation for labor. Arguing for the disarticulation between job and work—where “work” is a pursuit of productivity or creativity done irrespective of monetary compensation and “job” is waged labor—he also advocates for nation-states to adopt a system of guaranteed basic income for its citizens (whereby everyone, by virtue of citizenship, would receive an income sufficient to maintain a basic quality of life).
As noted by Standing and others, the trend toward the flexibilization in labor today can have benefits and advantages for workers themselves. Rather than being tied to a nine-to-five routine or rigid workplace, having more flexible hours and workspace is not only appealing but necessary for some workers, given the complexities of their own life situations (Millar 2014). But when remuneration and job security also become flexibilized—a move that benefits capital and companies but rarely the worker—life becomes increasingly precaritized as a result (Neilson and Rossiter 2008). In this sense, precarity slips from an issue about labor to one that seeps into other dimensions of life. Insecurity in the workplace spreads to insecurity when paying bills, having food at mealtime, or maintaining honor and pride (in one’s community or as head of household). It is not only a condition of precarious labor but a more existential and social state—a state where one’s human condition has become precarious as well (Lazzarato 2004). But the relationship between labor and life, and between job security and a secure everyday, depends on where one lives and where one is situated in the socioeconomic landscape of nation, workplace, and home. In Denmark, for example, workers have the “flexicurity” of being guaranteed assistance from the state should they lose any particular job they have held. Security in life then is not dependent upon job security (Kalleberg 2009, 15).
Judith Butler, a philosopher and feminist critic who has written extensively on the subject, agrees but extends this point further. Seeing precariousness as generalizable to life itself—“lives are by definition precarious” (Butler 2009, 25)—she distinguishes this from what she calls precarity: the differential distribution of precariousness across a population for reasons like ethnicity, gender, and state violence. While an undocumented migrant may be more at risk of deportation, physical violence, and material deprivation than a suburban housewife suffering from terminal cancer, Butler points to the need to understand both the differences and similarities in the conditions people experience as precarious subjects. In anthropology and cognate fields such as cultural studies and human geography, scholars have taken up what many see as currents of insecurity, uncertainty, and future unpredictability that are shaping the experience of living in the present moment (under neoliberalism, structural adjustment, the rising economic inequities between those at the top and those at the bottom, and the evisceration of the middle class).
“Life without the promise of stability” is how Anna Tsing (2015, 2) defines precarity: A modality of indeterminacy, she argues, is less the exception than the condition of our times. Uncertain about where, when, or how one will make do in the present, the precarious lack “handrails” for anchoring the future. In this uncertainty of temporality, where everyday efforts do not align with a teleology of progressive betterment (as with the promise of modernity—of a better life in the future for oneself or one’s children), living can be often just that. Not going anywhere in particular, lives get lived nonetheless. How precisely people do manage to survive amid what Han (2012) calls the “indeterminacy of lived relations within the present” and Millar (2014) “the precarious present” has been movingly tracked in a host of excellent ethnographies that range from dumps in Brazil (Millar 2014) and shantytowns in Chile (Han 2012) and Cape Town (Ross 2010) to the “boredom” of unemployed homeless in Romania (O’Neill 2014), a suicide epidemic among Inuit youth in Canada (Stevenson 2014), and the chronicity of heroin addiction along the Rio Grande in Arizona (Garcia 2010). In times when the future is opaque—not quite an endpoint that one works toward as a horizon of expectation—precarity generates its own rhythms and affects.
As Kathleen Stewart (2012) points out about “precarity’s forms,” being in the world today is experienced in the routines, gestures, and surfaces of everyday life that do not necessarily come together in a linear, cumulative fashion but get associated and sensed—sometimes, most achingly, when they fall apart, as with the “hard precarity of unworlding” (2012, 520). It is important to note that what Ortner (2016) has called the trend in “dark anthropology”—and Robbins (2013), less generously, the “suffering slot”—these scholars also see in such struggles of survival signs of incredible endurance, collectivity, and political possibility—for what Povinelli (2011) calls a social “otherwise.” Activists around precarity, such as the Autonomists, also recognize this potential for change—for a socioeconomic order based less on material accumulation and more inclusive of a “we” stemming from shared vulnerability or precariousness as Butler puts it. Rather than advocating for a return to the Fordist form of labor with more job security and regularized income, but only for core workers and at what was often a great sacrifice—of time and autonomy—to the workplace, the goal is to transform labor and capitalism altogether.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan achieved a remarkable balance between high economic growth and a high level of job security for male workers (80% of whom identified as “salarymen”). Under “Japan, Inc.” the country was considered a “super stable society” (chō-antei shakai) with a low crime rate, no war or military engagement, and a social environment of long-lasting jobs, marriages, and social ties. Security—of a kind—was at once expected and desired: what one traded for diligence and compliance in a social contract that registered as the (hetero)norm. Different from the post–market security of flexicurity (when workers are protected by a state-sponsored social security system if they lose a job), Japan, Inc. operated through the market. More precisely, it ran by collapsing the market into the workplace, which collapsed into the social factory of family and home. Japan was not a welfare state and the government allocated little in the way of social provisions (which is still true today). Rather, it was the corporation and the family that figured as the de facto welfare institutions. Given a family wage to have and support a family, workers were taken care of but also wedded to the workplace—a dynamic that extracted labor from male workers and also their unpaid wives who managed the household, the children, and any attached elderly so that the breadwinner could give his all to the company. Japan’s “super stable society” depended on this knot of dependencies, labors, and attachments. And, as it unraveled in post-postwar Japan, a very particular kind of precarity and precariat has emerged in its place (Allison 2013).
Following its period of high economic growth and consumerist spread in the postwar years of the 1960s to 1980s, Japan experienced a shift in the 1990s marked by: the bursting of the bubble economy; the onset of a prolonged recession; a wave of downsizing and outsourcing in Japanese business; a neoliberalist trend toward deregulation and privatization and the mantra held out to citizens of jiko sekinin (self-responsibility); and a shift toward flexible labor. While precarity was nothing new for certain margins of Japan’s population, even during the height of its much-reputed “miracle economy,” this does not discount the fact—nor, as importantly, the perception—that something had notably changed by the 1990s. As a “lost generation” of students coming of age in the 1990s found their options for employment—and, tied to this, for marriage and child raising—severely at odds with what their parents had experienced and raised their children to expect, Japan had lost its sheen (in its own eyes as well as in those of the rest of the world) as a postindustrial success story. As the lost decade of the 1990s turned into yet another, and another, the new normal has become less the expectation of securitized life prospects as the opposite: a lived reality of flexible employment, diminished possibilities, and future uncertainty—what many acknowledged at the turn of, and into, the new millennium by saying they felt “insecure” (fuan, fuantei) (Allison 2013).
While shared at some level, such insecurity is also differentially distributed. While one-third of all workers today are irregularly employed (hiseikikoyōsha), this is true of one-half of young workers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four and 77% of women. Women are particularly disadvantaged in the labor market in a country that ranks near the bottom of gender equity in OECD countries. Making, on average, only one-half the salary of regular-ranked male workers, women are likely to leave jobs when they marry and also idealize marriage as more likely to give them economic security than would a job (Osawa and Kingston 2015).Yet few want to marry a “freeter” (one name given to irregular employment, such as an hourly job), and the marriage rate, as well as rates of childbirth (only 2% of which occur outside of marriage) are on the decline despite the fact that a majority of young people say they desire to marry. Job insecurity is the number one reason given for why they do not. In this, one sees a correlation between regular employment and what lingers as the aspirational measures of social adulthood: marriage, family, and a house of one’s own (“my-homeism,” mai homushugi) (Allison 2013). Men with regularized jobs are twice as likely to marry and have children than those irregularly (or un)employed: A fact that leads sociologist Yamada Masahiro (2003) to argue that Japan has become a “society of differential hope.” In what has become increasingly a society bipolarized by income (kakusa shakai), fewer and fewer Japanese can realize the Japanese “dream” of a stable marriage, family, and job—the “winners” in a society where more and more feel they are slipping downward as “losers” (Yuasa 2008).
The language of hope, futurity, and dreaming—or lack of all the above—has been widely picked up in the discourse, scholarship, and activism surrounding precarity in Japan since the 1990s. Genda Yūji, labor historian at the University of Tokyo and founder of the “social science school of hope” (kibōgaku), for example, has tracked a number of trends related to labor and precarity, including NEET—not in education, employment, or training that is limited to youth and SNEP—solitary nonemployed persons, which mainly involves middle- to older-aged men (Genda 2005, 2013) and has discovered how critical having a job is to one’s identity, social livelihood, and overall health. Besides scholarly research, Genda also does outreach with teachers, students, and youth, giving practical advice on how to generate hope by pursuing productive endeavors (even when regular employment does not ensue as a result). The lack of hope is also how a self-identified freeter (irregular worker) described the “humiliation” of his life residing with parents, unable to acquire a house or car of his own (let alone a wife), and treated like a social “parasite” despite the fact he had done everything he had been told to (work hard, get into college, and then graduate) (Akagi 2007, 54). Referring to the social mobility experienced by his parents’ generation in the early years following the war, Akagi Tomohiro, in his much circulated article “Hope is War,” laments the stuckedness of his existence, which makes him feel unhuman and dead.
Amamiya Karin, who self-identifies as a professional activist and author, has arguably done the most to make the issues concerning precarity known to the Japanese public and to devote her own labor and life to working on behalf of the precariat, diversely defined. Born in 1962 to parents in the “boomer” generation, Amamiya became a freeter upon graduating from high school: an experience she found existentially and socially traumatic. In her voluminous writings, public appearances, and activism, Amamiya describes the “pain of life” (ikizurasa) of an irregular worker, which—involving poverty and labor—is also a problem of ningen kankei (human relationships). For Amamiya, it is (dis)belonging—no recognition or acceptance by others (shonin)—that troubles the young precariat more than anything: an insecurity of life that is not merely material but also ontological (Amamiya and Kayano 2008, 9). As Amamiya notes, the symptoms of “emotional hardship” abound in Japan: the suicide rate skyrocketed to 32,300 per year in 1998, remaining high (if dipping recently) ever since; rates of anxiety and depression have escalated; social isolation and reclusiveness are well-known phenomena (e.g., hikikomori, SNEP, lonely death); and general stress and dreariness over the future are routinely discussed in the media. Moving beyond the flexible worker and into writing and activism, Amamiya has become immersed in championing the rights, and listening to the voices, of precariat of various stripes. Dressed in goth (and once a member of a rightist punk band), she advocates for those whose ikizurasa ranges from irregularization of labor (as contract, dispatch, or part-time workers), poverty, and homelessness to social isolation, self-cutting, and mental or physical handicaps.
The first in Japan to adopt the word “precariat,” Amamiya helped institute “precariat May Day events” in Japan starting in 2005. She participates in a wide range of activist initiatives, including “Stop Suicide” events where survivors of suicide attempts (tōjisha) share their own stories with audiences. Also an avid collaborator, she joins forces with various scholars and activists with whom she often cowrites, including Yuasa Makoto who founded the Anti-Poverty Movement (hanhinkon) and cofounded Moyai (an “independent life support center” NPO that helps people find jobs, housing, and apply for welfare).
In light of its high aging and low birthrate demographics, Japan is also facing new forms of insecuritization of life—such as the rise of single households (one-third of all residents) where it is increasingly the individual who is tasked with the responsibility of handling end-of-life as well as mortuary and postmortem arrangements on her own (Allison 2015). A host of new businesses and nonprofit initiatives have arisen to service the need of single consumers/citizens. Scholarship has responded as well. Most notably, the anthropologist and feminist scholar Ueno Chizuko (2015) has written a series of books advocating for the livelihood of the robust single and even offering guidelines on how to manage death at home all alone. Nuclear and natural dangers have also been foremost in the imaginary of Japanese since the compound disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011. The outpouring of volunteerism and citizen support following 3.11 was quite extraordinary and nationwide. And accompanying this was a public discourse about the need to join forces as a national collectivity—some of this ensconced in a language of rekindling communal “hope” (Allison 2013). Now gearing up for hosting the 2020 Olympics, the issues of reconstruction and nuclear cleanup around Fukushima have been placed on the back burner. And there are also simmering questions around the precarity of migrant and care workers that get insufficiently addressed, even by activists like Amamiya, and certainly by the government and press more generally.
Precarity has been a keyword of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century times. Referencing the insecuritization of labor and life, it does so in terms of a horizon of well-being that could also be considered aspirationally middle class. The expectation of a job steady enough that one can live a respectable, secure life is an aspiration held by far more than can realize its actualization, fueling what could be called the precarity protests across the world in recent years (e.g., Arab Spring, Jasmine Revolution, and Occupy Wall Street), and also the waves of despair and resentment that are contributing to the rise of nationalism and xenophobia all over the world today. But as scholars and activists have also noted, collective struggles to face precarity together also hold the potential for social, economic, and political change. “Bifo” Berardi calls this “the soul on strike” (2009).
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