Today, there’s a broad consensus that neoliberalism is making work more precarious. Indeed, for four decades and more, successive governments in developed countries have passed various measures to flexibilize the labor market. These measures increasingly allow businesses to use fixed-term contracts with a definite end date. Added to these are other measures that make it easier for employers to lay off staff.
In France, for instance, the creation of interim contracts dates back to 1972. This was meant to make it possible to substitute one member of staff with another in exceptional cases. Yet, over the years, it has become an instrument of flexibility in the hands of employers. When a company sees its levels of activity falling, it can choose not to renew temporary contracts. In so doing, it can get rid of some of its employees without having to enter a long and risky collective redundancy process.
In his famous book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing concludes that it is no longer appropriate just to speak of a division in society between workers and capitalists. What we are instead seeing, Standing argues, is the emergence of a precariat underneath the old proletariat.
It is clear that their precarious status undermines trade unions. Temporary workers are reticent about unionizing, for they fear that it means their contracts won’t be renewed. Precarity gradually eats into the unions’ own ranks: in some companies, the core of stable workers is gradually replaced by temporary ones. There are not no conflicts involving precarious workers. But they are relatively rare.
For some, like Standing, precarity also has other malign effects — with the rise of far-right populism in Europe and the United States counting among its direct consequences. For want of any real alternative, the destabilization of the popular classes would, it seems, drive them to look for scapegoats among those even more precarious than they are: migrants, the unemployed, LGBT people, and so on.
Yet by no means is this division — the separation of workers into a multitude of different statuses — actually something new. It has existed in various forms throughout the history of capitalism. We could even say that it is functional to capitalism’s very dynamic. Whatever period we look at, we always find that permanent staff coexisted with their temporary counterparts — and that regular employment had to be fought for.
The Permanent and the Temporary
Precarity is, in a sense, inherent to the very nature of employment contracts under capitalism. In principle — at the juridical level — a worker is free to negotiate the price of her own labor power, on an equal footing with her putative employer. According to this liberal conception, the employment relation — whether or not it takes the form of a contract — is thus a commercial transaction between formally equal subjects.
In 1966, it was stipulated that employee-elected works councils should be informed of and consulted about any company restructuring plans, and in 1969, redeployment, early retirement, and redundancy compensation were introduced in order to limit the impact of restructuring. These measures sought to orient the employer toward solutions other than “straight” firings.
The idea of a stable, long-term job is, in fact, something relatively new, when we look at the history of capitalism as a whole. These measures were possible only due to the strength of the labor movement and the strong economic growth of the postwar decades. Once these conditions were gone, stable and long-term jobs in capitalism appeared rather more of a short-term “parenthesis.” Today, employment contracts are less and less associated with a protection from market forces. Both governments and employers use the vocabulary of the individual worker’s “mobility” and “liberty” to justify reforms to flexibilize the labor market.
Whenever capitalists talk about the need to increase flexibility to improve the economy, what they really mean is that they want to make work more precarious as a way of driving down wages and benefits.