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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Precarity on Wikipedia


In the past I have recommended the Wikipedia entry on Precarity to my students as a jumping off point for their research into the idea, but I cannot continue to do so in good conscience so long as this entry remains in its present form. (Here is something I have written on the topic myself.)

Someone objected that the old article was wrong to state that the term "precarity" was first used in the year 2000, when we clearly find the term already in use before that, as in "the widely circulated article by the famous American Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, 'Poverty and Precarity,' published in The Catholic Worker newspaper in May 1952."

Now, I may be a crusty atheist, but I am a huge fan of Dorothy Day and I actually found it enormously useful to direct people's attention to this historical context.

Unfortunately, the interventions into the article inspired by this move went far beyond registering Day's contribution to the broadest construal of Precarity discourse. Now when one goes to the article one is told that Precarity is a "theological" term. It is connected in a sidebar to "Christianity" and described as "Part of a series of articles on Christianity," under which one finds a huge black crucifix. The first section of the article is now entitled "Catholic Origins."

It is only once we reach paragraph three (still mysteriously included under the heading of Catholic Origins) that we are informed:
Precarity is a general term to describe how large parts of the population are being subjected to flexible exploitation or flexploitation (low pay, high blackmailability, intermittent income, etc.), and existential precariousness (high risk of social exclusion because of low incomes, welfare cuts, high cost of living, etc.) The condition of precarity is said to affect all of service labor in a narrow sense, and the whole of society in a wider sense, but particularly youth, women, and immigrants.

This is the useful general description with which the article used to begin. When Mike Davis discusses informalization or Naomi Klein discusses disaster capitalism one wonders if anybody in their right mind seriously imagines that this is exclusively or primarily a "Christian topic"?

The author of these changes responded to my expressed concerns on this question by saying "I think you may have had a point, were it not for the fact that the promotion of San Precario has very much reinforced this Christian aspect[.]" Presumably, then, I don't have a point, after all? Surely it matters that "the promotion of San Precario" to which the critic refers is, at least in some conspicuous instances, obviously parodic, an iconic representation of a fast-food worker on his knees in his dumpy uniform? (Contemplate, if you will, the image at the head of this blog-post.) Surely this easily owes as much to the prankster-politics of Situationism as to the pious politics of Catholicism?

Surely, the centrality of May Day in Precarity protests should at least give this critic pause before denying I "have a point" here? If one follows the actual links in this entry to the actual political organizing inspired by the idea of a Revolutionary Precariat it takes no time at all to realize that this is not a movement defined by Christianity, but by the global struggle for democracy and against neoliberalism, a struggle that is not remotely subsumable under Christianity, given the role of non-Christian people of faith, the role of secular multiculturalists, the role of materialist socialists, and so on in these struggles.

I do not mean to suggest by all this that Precarity is anti-Christian in some way, nor that the contribution of Christianity to Precarity discourse and protest should not be affirmed better than it was in the original article. I recognize the contribution critics have made in pointing out the role of Dorothy Day and other Christians in the formation of this movement, but to subsume Precarity under "Christianity" still seems to me a rather breathtaking overreach to the cost of all sense.

1 comment:

Leutha said...

Precarity and the Consolidation of Identity

“Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony.”
Gender Trouble, Judith Butler, 1999

Leaving aside the way the wikipedia page on Precarity has developed, to ponder a comparison of precarity with Mike Davis' informalization or Naomi Klein's disaster capitalism is precisely to miss the point. These writers are not – as far as I am aware – essentialising these qualities, whereas the discourse on Precarity does precisely this. In adopting the word Precarity rather than “precariousness” its architects are perpetuating a hegemonic strategy which at one and the same time seeks to hide its origins and obscure a much deeper, broader discussion which fails to support their political purpose.

There has long been discussions about how capitalism leaves the worker prey to insecurity. But in the early 21st century a movement emerged which fetishised this, even seeking to replace the familiar concept of the proletariat, with that of the precariat, a degraded concept which hides a process of depoliticisation through facile innovation. Thus it comes as no surprise to find that such a reactionary programme is tied up with the racist EuroMayDay campaign. Here we find a new expression of an old cultural hegemony.

This hegemony functions through different rhetorical forms amongst which three principle forms can be identified:
Racist (White)
Cultural (Christian)
Geographic (European)

At a time when the politics of racism is so universally discredited that even many avowed racists still try to present their ethno-particularism in liberal terms it should come as no surprise that this hegemony should adopt the two other principal forms of geographic and cultural hegemony. The New Right have studied their Gramsci. Euro Mayday marks the adoption of Euronationalism which has been a feature of some strands of the New Right, albeit with a seemingly “Left” form. However the emptiness of this leftist rhetoric can readily been seen through with a modicum of analysis.

The call for a Europe which welcomes migrants is in the first place a call for such a place as Europe with a consistent nature, as somewhere with a palpable reality. In the context of Toni Negri's support for a European Constitution this is not something to be taken lightly. Characters like Alex Foti, a prime promoter of Precarity works closely with Negri and his acolytes, channelling a social movement to run alongside Negri's Euro-constitutionalism.

As someone familiar with rhetoric, I am sure you will have no trouble in identifying the insidious racism behind the Euromayday propaganda, which masks its virulent racism with a liberal trope. At first glance, their openness to the non-European migrant seems full of charm. This is promoted as one of their aims, and not only that they seek to extend their liberalism across the whole of Europe. However what is superficially presented as an extension of solidarity from the subject behind the slogan, becomes a grievous exclusion when looked at from the point of view of non European, whether residing in Europe or outside. The non-European is invited to forget all their friends and relatives outside Europe in order to be the not-so-lucky recipient of this one way soldarity. Euromayday confirms a “not quite racialised identity” as a European i.e. as a disguised racial category which has had an ignominious history as European imperialism has shared its privileges in the domains across the world which it has conquered. This is of course taking place in a world where Europe is busy constituting itself as a more unified imperialism faced by its principal rivals, China and the USA. Foti does little to hide his genteel racism,saying that he is talking of a Europe as Against Asia and America. This is pernicious. The Christianity seems innocuous in comparison.

The influence of the Catholic Worker movement on Negri when he was involved in a catholic youth movement is well known. His more recent comparisons of the communist militant with St Francis of Assissi underline this, and similar sentiments can be found in contemporary Catholic Worker publications.

The parodic form of San Precario may not sit comfortably with piety of conventional Catholicism, but then that is not its purpose. Rather it draws on Christian values and cultural forms to constitute a challenge to those who currently occupy the dominant positions in society. It seeks find a resonance in those values and cultural forms in order to revitalise those aspects of Christianity which are for social justice. Just as with previous attempts to revive Christianity, it seeks to locate popular conceptions with which it can launch its social movement. This parody is of course meaningless to the Sudanese and Libyan refugees in Italy who have not been able to familiarise themselves with the veneration of the saints as practised in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain.

Yes the “Revolutionary Precariat” and Euromayday deserves to be placed alongside Enrico Corradini's “proletarian nation”. This is dangerous stuff and I hope you wake up to this.

Leutha Blissett