Precarious work: a Marxist explanationApril 29, 2019
The casualisation of work is no aberration of capitalism. It is the logical outcome of a system based on profit. Precarious work is the product of processes within capitalism that Karl Marx described over 150 years ago.
In the first volume of his seminal work on economics, Capital, Marx explains how the bosses obtain profit from the exploitation of workers:
“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.”
Essentially, the driving force of capitalist society is the expropriation of value produced by the worker above and beyond the cost of his own wages (as well as the wear and tear of production). This is what is known as surplus value in Marxist economics. This surplus value produced by workers is ultimately the source of profits for the capitalists.
For example, The Rideshare Guy, a blog and podcast dedicated to workers in the ride share industry, explains that Uber takes 30% of the cost of a ride. The remaining 70% goes to the driver, who will use the money for the maintenance of the car, petrol money, and other related things necessary for the functioning of his service, and to his own wage, which he uses for food, rent, etc. Therefore, 30% of an Uber driver’s working time is completely unpaid. So someone working 50 hours per week would be working 15 hours for the company for zero pay.
Under capitalism, the struggle between capital and labour over this unpaid labour time is the backbone of the class struggle. It is precisely the struggle over the length of the working day that Marx explains is the core antagonism between the working class and capitalists. Quoting Marx again:
“The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser [capitalist], and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital [the class of capitalists] and collective labour [the working class].”
As well as lengthening the working day, Marx notes all the other ways the capitalists try to extract the most surplus value out of workers. These include greater investment in technology to make production cheaper, innovation of new ways to organise the workplace, and so forth.
In this way, the pursuit of profit led to the development of industry in places like Britain.
For example, the late 1940s, 50s, and 60s was most likely the best capitalism will ever be for regular workers. WWII had caused a massive boom in production and industry in the United States, which used this new success to reform the economies of Western Europe, which entailed massive investment as well as expansion of labour rights and social benefits. This helped a rising layer of workers who had more stable jobs, higher wages and bargaining power, and more government services. Ultimately, the rich could afford concessions to the working class: as long as their profits remained high and the economy was booming.
But, because of the laws of capitalist crisis, the post-war boom couldn’t last forever, and governments found themselves unable to simply spend their way out of the 1970s recession. As a result, the logic of exploitation for profit kicked in and the political programmes of Thatcher and Reagan arose; regulations were rolled back, social services cut, taxes on the wealthy lowered, unions busted, and so forth.
The post-war period was an aberration of the normal functioning of capitalism and the 1970s marked a return to normality. Through the cutting of state services, promotion of a massive new digital technology industry, financialisation of the economy, exploitation of cheap labour in the so-called third world, and taking out of unheard-of amounts of debt, the capitalists were able to maintain high profits at the cost of letting the living standards of the working class progressively decline. This all came to a head in 2008, where the debt crisis exploded, bringing down the whole world economy.
As a result, under capitalism today, investment, innovation, and increased productivity are no longer as profitable for capitalists. These have all gone to the wall in the short-term pursuit of profit. Instead of investing in developing the productive forces of the economy, the bosses are making the working class pay for the crisis. The capitalists revert to simply lowering wages and making their employees work longer and more flexibly. Intermittent hours, lower pay, and excessively long working days’ is now the reality for more workers internationally.
Replacing stable jobs with outsourcing, temporary contracts, casualised labour, and peripheral and informal economies, made working hours more ‘flexible’, unpredictable and irregular. There are sections of workers whose jobs are completely casualised, such as those who work in the ‘gig economy’ or embodied by corporations such as Uber, Deliveroo, Lyft, Rover, Handy, and many others. The gig economy, along with other forms of precarious work, has promoted the myth of self-employment and independence. Yet in reality, the gig economy presents a frightening new system that threatens all workers, of whom the workers of the gig economy are only the first victims.
One example of the extreme exploitation involved with the gig economy is that many Uber drivers end up working obscenely long shifts during times when the fares go up, fearing that they will never see that sort of rise again. A report from USA Today gives an exemplary example of this practice:
“One morning late last year, Uber driver James Lindsey saw he had a chance to more than double his pay of the $8 per hour average he had been making, the 48-year-old Provo, Utah resident says that day, rates jumped to $20 per hour for no apparent reason. To take advantage of it, he drove for 20 hours straight.”
Some inexplicably suggest that this “sharing” economy of Uber and Airbnb is representative of what socialism could be like: a world where products do not just belong to you with limited use of others, such as family and friends, but also can serve the general community and provide services to all while maximizing use and efficiency. The problem is that there is no true sharing in the capitalist economy. In a world where profit and accumulation is the mantra of the economy, for something to be “shared,” it must be privately owned and then exchanged on the market. This discounts all true sharing and turns goods that should be public and serving of the whole community into vehicles of the capitalist class to extract profit; goods are therefore commodified.
This may be presented as “sharing, flexible work, facilitating movement,” but that is just an appearance meant to hide the fact that the main goal, like that of all capitalists, is to extract as much profit as possible. Promoters of the gig economy profess the ideology of independent work. This hides the true fact that, like all capitalist endeavours, the bosses and shareholders do not create any value themselves. They are simply turning personal property into private property. In the gig and on-demand economies, workers are not even technically employees. Thus they do not need to be provided training, tools, and all the other things that actually contribute to the creation of value. This increases corporate profit, yet makes the overall economy and the lives of the employees worse. Rather than investing to improve the skills and tools of the on demand workforce, helping raise productivity across the sector, these companies are actually just profiteering from the symptoms of the system’s stagnation.
The rise of the gig economy is concurrent with another economic fact that has become prevalent since the 1970s: privatization and outsourcing. This is prevalent the NHS, where 11% of it is now privately funded. The result is that large numbers of workers in hospitals are not employed by the state. Instead they are employed by outside agencies and private companies who exploit them for profit. Outsourcing has taken place in the private sector as well, with many companies employing outside agencies to provide some services. Security guards and cleaners are particularly affected by this. Amongst cleaners, those working for an outsourced firm make 7% less than those directly employed; for security guards the figure is 24%.
This increasingly precarious work, especially in advanced capitalist countries like Britain and the USA, has coincided with the large departure of jobs away from industry and manufacturing. Communities in the North of England or in the Rust Belt in America, where a single earner could support a whole family with one wage, have seen themselves destroyed and impoverished. Whereas it used to be the case that having a job meant a stable life, today 70% of those in poverty in Britain are working full time. Cuts in benefits mean people are being forced to turn to charities for their basic needs. The amount of food bank deliveries per year has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to 1.2 million in 2018. As the global working class has increased twofold with the expansion of capitalism into formerly so-called communist countries such as Russia and China, workers around the world find themselves competing globally in a race to the bottom.
This competition among the working class and weakening of unions is behind the misleading low unemployment numbers we see in Britain and the US and actually coincide with more people being forced to work for lower wages due to economic necessity. In the United States for example, from 1960 to 2012, the percentage of dual-income households with children under 18 rose from 25% to 60%. Due to the lowering of wages and defeat of unions, families are earning less overall even with both parents employed.
Since the 1970s, and especially since the financial crash of 2008, it is clear that we are living in an especially crisis-ridden and precarious era. Casualisation and precarious work are part of the fundamental nature of capitalism, flowing from a system based on exploitation for profit. This is the real face of the rotten system we are forced to work under.
Capitalism becoming more precarious in a time of crisis is nothing new. Marx even noted this fact in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto:
“The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.”
As Marx explained and as we can see today, precarious work and casualisation are inherent to capitalism itself. It is therefore inaccurate to label precarious workers as a separate class from the rest of the working class. They have the same common interests against the bosses and landlords. Even traditionally safe middle class jobs in areas such as academia and technology development are being subject to precarious work, as over 30% of professors and lecturers in Britain today are paid by the hour for papers and lectures.
However, unlike much of the working class, precarious workers lack many of the social benefits and rights that go with traditional employment, such as social security and ability to unionise. They thus have less bargaining power in contract negotiations with their employer to decrease their working hours or increase their pay. As we can see, the explosion of precarious work has clear winners and losers. Capitalists have benefited immensely from the rise of precarious work. On the other hand, precarious workers are one of the most exploited layers within society.
Organising and mobilising can be more complicated when you do not have a definite employer, do not have a definite boss, do not have a union, do not see your fellow workers, etc. In a traditional workplace, you have a boss in a single company, about whom you have other workers to complain with and potentially unionise with. Yet in precarious sectors like the gig economy, the only interaction with the corporate overlords who control you is through an app. Or in outsourced jobs, you may be working in a different workplace every day, isolated and away from fellow co-workers.
But there are benefits to organising that come with this new technology. Apps like WhatsApp have been successfully used to coordinate the struggle between precarious workers. And in any case, the struggle along class lines is becoming sharper as we are plunged deeper into crisis. With the capitalists being able to offer only piece- meal work at best, workers are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions.
There are those who seek to end the phenomenon of casualisation through small changes here and there. These people mostly offer solutions of returning to the policies of the economic boom after World War II: higher taxes, more rights to unions, etc. Some of these layers even propose universal basic income as a way to make sure that those who are in precarious work or are unemployed will have enough to meet their basic needs.
Of course, we can and must support any struggle for genuinely progressive reforms that will improve the lives of workers in any way. We should all be on the front line of the struggle for more union rights and higher wages etc.
But we have to remember that what we are facing today is not capitalism gone wrong: it’s the best that capitalism has to offer. Little tweaks around the edges are insufficient to permanently reverse this trend towards casualisation which is a product of the laws of capitalist development. There is no turning back the clock.
The capitalist class will always try to impose as low wages and long hours as possible on the working class. We therefore cannot allow them to retain their political and economic power within society. Their interests are not the same as ours. It is this antagonism which is forcing workers to take to their street, displaying the strength of workers through collective struggle. Recent movements such as the McStrikers in Britain, the Fight for 15 campaign in the US to raise the minimum wage, and the mass strikes of Deliveroo riders are showing that precarious workers are indeed starting to realise their strength.
Only as a strong, organised class do we stand any chance of overthrowing this wretched system and fighting for a fundamental change within society.
Max Klein, Cambridge Marxist Society