Precarity Part One: The Overstretch of an Idea

Paul Walsh has recently been writing on the issue of precarity in ELT, usefully collating the main thinkers and ideas in this area (Sennet, Bourdieu, Butler, Beck, Foucault, Bauman, Standing etc). However, it is one of his articles in Open Democracy (containing no such references to academic thought) where he is at his absolute sharpest and most poignant. It really is a call to arms, not just as a community of ELT teachers, but as human beings. It is a must read (see important note at end of article).

In three parts, starting with this counterfactual approach to many claims being made about precarity, we want to add to the discussion started by Paul Walsh. In part two we will be looking at precarity as a trans-historical condition and asking what is particularly new about our current relation with precarity (pushing a more orthodox Marxist philosophical line of argument) and in part three we will be addressing ourselves particularly to the ELT community where many of the larger claims of precarity (dismissed below) do seem to actually hold. We will also be closing the discussion in part three by asking how “precarity” felt in the ELT community can be used as a force for organising ourselves rather than, as it is at present, a force for dividing us.

The first part is indeed very easy for us because it is a video presentation by the author of an important book which challenges many of the widespread views currently held on precarity. Joseph Choonarah, the author, is a leading light of the British Socialist Workers Party. People should not be put off as (whatever your disagreements with vanguardist parties) this organisation has produced such interesting thinkers as Nigel Harris (economist), Terry Eagleton (cultural theorist), Alex Callinicos (expert on post-modern philosophy), Alasdair MacIntyre (revolutionary in the area of ethics) and Roy Bhaskar (giant in the philosophy of science). That said, perhaps Choonarah represents a more orthodox turn of that particular tradition, seeking to defend existing orthodoxies rather than renew ideas.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Choonarah does not dismiss that certain jobs are precarious but provides striking data and analysis which undermines much of the claims of many pursing the idea of precarity as a widespread phenomenon.

The weakness of Choonarah’s overall position, and this reflects the deeply held syndicalism of his particular strand of Marxism, is that the political, the sets of institutional arrangements beyond the workplace, are subordinated to this direct labour-capital relationship. This does not allow him to see how the non-ownership of property and other assets in a regime of capital where asset inflation has purposefully rocketed (it has been engineered), may also be a major source of precarity (the wages in permanent jobs being insufficient to secure a long term home with predictable costs and/or a living pension in retirement).

Indeed, again while he recognises that the subjective experience of precarity is widespread but does not reflect the objective conditions of most work contracts, he dismisses this subjectivity, believing a few strikes won in the workplace will somehow change this subjectivity, without the need to develop sets of minimum political demands about access to affordable housing and guaranteed living pensions for all.

That said, enjoy, he really is an engaging and convincing voice on the subject:

Important Note: There is no equivalence suggested or implied here between the views and politics of Paul Walsh and those of Joseph Choonarah and the political organisation Choonarah belongs to. Moreover, in the comments section Paul makes clear his distaste for such organisations and makes clear his particular perspective on certain manifestations of marxism.


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8 responses to “Precarity Part One: The Overstretch of an Idea

  1. Hi Marxist ELF,

    Thanks for the compliments, but I must take issue with you. You introduce my work and then segway into the video of Joseph Choonarah who is ‘a leading light of the British Socialist Workers Party’ (SWP).

    Sorry but I’m extremely unhappy about this. I don’t want my work used in any kind of way to introduce the SWP. The SWP is run by Central Committee, it’s undemocratic, and in my personal dealings with people who’ve been in the organisation is closer to a cult than anything else and they’ve destroyed campaigns I’ve personally been involved through their adherence to a rigid, outdated ideology.

    Furthermore, Joseph Choonarah according to my research was also ‘a leading light’, actually a Central Committee member, when the rape scandal in the SWP blew up several years ago, causing many members to leave the organisation permanently, including Richard Seymour, author of two books on Jeremy Corbyn. From the Guardian:

    ‘The young female member in the latest case says that the senior party member had physically abused her in front of other party members. Then, she claims, in early 2011 the male organiser pressured her into meeting and then raped her in her bedroom.’

    There are many articles about this situation, where a senior member of the SWP (‘Comrade Delta’) being accused of rape and the leadership trying to cover this up. See here:

    Therefore I want nothing to do with the SWP and I dislike the way my ideas are being connected to those of ‘a leading light’ in such an undemocratic organisation. I’d like you to remove my name and my details from this post.

    • Thank you Paul for your comments. Everything you say about the SWP is indeed factual and we entirely understand and share your disgust with the way that organisation dealt with a rape accusation. However, at no point do we make any equivalence between you, your ideas on precarity and Jospeh Choonarah (membeer of SWP and author of a book on precarity). The only equivalence is that you have both written on the subject of precarity. We believe this is abundantly clear in the article. We begin by making reference to your recent writings on ELT and then we set out how in three parts we, at MTG, will tackle the theme. Again, there will be no equivalence between our views and yours other than where we agree. We sincerely hope there will be differences as well as similaraties otherwise we might just as well post a link to your articles!!
      The issue as to whether we should ever refer to authors greatly tainted by association is an interesting one. You refer to writers like Bourdieu who owes a great debt to the “great French theorist Louis Althusser (as indeed do Foucault and Butler); this is a man who strangled his wife to death!!
      We are happy to make a note at the end of the article to the effect: Paul Walsh wishes to strongly disassociate himself and his ideas from Joseph Choonarah and the organisation he represents”. However, we think to remove your name where no equivalence is suggested or assumed appears to us to be excessive and self-limiting. Let us know whether our suggested compromise is to your satisfaction!!

  2. Sorry but there’s an implicit connection in the way you’ve connected my ideas to those of Choonarah (whom I gather was on the SWP Central Committee at the time of the rape scandal) and the SWP itself. I’d prefer it if you removed my name from this post. However if you’re not willing to do that then please attach the note you suggested to the bottom of the piece.

    • We have decided on the second option because it is better to contextualise “history” rather than try to delete it.
      Your comments are strong and clear and I don’t think anyone will be left with any doubt as regards your attitude to certain manifestations of marxism.

  3. As to quoting authors, the point is that I do reference Bourdieu sure, but I simply *don’t* reference Althusser – who took the side of the Communist Party (like many mainstream Marxists at the time) over the side of the students in 1968!

    I generally don’t reference authoritarian organisations or authoritarians, apart from Marx himself at times.

    • Is this not the typical one-sided myth peddling of the groups (like the SWP) you despise.
      This was the position of the PCF
      Do you not accept that there was general concern that the students and workers were drifting towards a bloody confrontation they were not equipped to win (the balance of class forces were not in their favour as witnessed by the trouncing of the left in hastily called elections- which brought an end to the occupations)? We should not forget what happened in Mexico in 1968, or in Czechoslovakia 1968
      Not saying the PCF played everything well (far from it) but “not on the side of the students” (where might you have developed that idea??), nor implying 1968 did not bring about huge cultural changes (mainly for the good) but worried you might be more inadvertently influenced by the propaganda of certain central committees than you believe.
      We haven’t dipped into the Frankfurt School “tragedy”, which you might also be referring to, but we would again argue this must be seen in a broader multi-dimensional manner. A nice article here on it

  4. First thanks for attaching the note. Second, I don’t despise the SWP – I just have personal experience of the way they operate. In my opinion (and not just mine) they have had a deleterious effect on the left in the UK through the undemocratic and authoritarian way that they have *always* operated (see above).

    On the subject of ’68, here’s Althusser’s ‘hot take’ on the events from 1969 showing how he was still wedded even then to an outdated conceptualisation of the working class as the vanguard class (see Brexit and recent UK general election for specific cases of where the working class have ended up)

    ‘The working class felt that it ran the risk — given the manifest inexperience of the students in the class struggle — of being dragged into what has to be called, for lack of a better word, an uncertain adventure.’

    And here is Althusser’s hypothesis that he draws from the events of 1968:

    ‘I will present the following fundamental hypothesis: this international movement is one of the spontaneous forms of the class struggle, waged — generally in utopian-leftist forms — in a petty-bourgeois environment and provoked, in the final analysis, by the crisis of the present phase of imperialism, the phase of its death-agony.’

    But if imperialism is in its ‘death-agony’ then why is Downing Street in 2019, over 50 years later, now full of imperialists?

    • Very interesting comments and strongly put- thank you!! In reply we would argue there is no unitary class consciousness because it would be wrong to see the working class as a homogenous block to be marched up and down through history. Nor should we collapse into Weberianism where we compare actual consciousness to an ideal type of what it should be. A view which has infected much Marxist and non-Marxist thinking. Rather a class in itself (given by its shared relationship to the means of production) is in a movement towards a class for itself (a set of universal shared characteristics that it comes to realise as it encounters concrete realities and thoughts about how to face them- not always coming up with the right answers). Nowhere is this considered a clean or linear process. The fact is that though we all apparently descend from the same African mother we deny the common march of humanity through false divisions we have collected on a separate journeys around this globe of ours; often descending into the most bestial inhumanity towards our brothers and sisters.
      The fact there is a clear division between generations inside the working class in the UK, and more importantly in between the towns and cities (let alone Scotland and the England) supports somewhat the Leninist view that working-class conscioussness is uneven and there must be a party led by the politicially advanced section of that class rather than pander to the backward elements (sexism, racism, homophobia, nativism etc.) I have never heard Orthodox Marxists talk of a Vanguartd class but I have certainly heard them talking about the working class as the principle agent of change. Then we have the difference between Marx who saw the role of the working-class as that of abolishing itself and all class societies in contrast to social-democratic parties (like the Labour Party) and Stalinist parties ruling on behalf of the working class, as their representatives (an idea alien to Marx).
      And indeed the middle-class students (for they were overwhelming so statistically) were in many ways in advance of many working-class elements in France in 1968 (as we saw from the massive vote for De Gaulle at the expense of the left) but this does not make them the embodiment of revolutionary potential or immune to infantile adventurism. We are sure that those in cities rejecting Brexit for a less nativist project are in advance of many working-class people in the towns (and their blind stupid nativism and envy of “cosmopolitianism”) but so many of them in the cities still support fortress Europe against the invasion of “hoards of immigrants” who will rob us of our “self-deserved riches”. Indeed, to be a little provocative, 68 like Punk while bringing some welcome change in breaking with the past opened the door to a counter-revolution through its counter-culture.
      These being the words of Johhny Rotten and the Sex pistols
      Right now ha, ha, ha, ha, ha
      I am an anti-Christ
      I am an anarchist
      Don’t know what I want
      But I know how to get it
      I want to destroy the passerby

      Sounds a bit Thatherite in retrospect, does it not? But at the time those punks dressing up in Swastikas and calling their bands New Order and Joy Division (completely disgusting) were revolting against a broken order which talked about the self-sacrfice they had made and expected the young to make themselves. Were the middle-class students in France on the whole not wrapping themselves in “symbols” of protest (this time “communism” and a particularly odious Maoist variant of the same rather than developing deep and profound new revolutiionary methods applicable to all?)
      And Yes, the so-called revoltion that many on the left, including the Trotskyists and Maoists who implanted themselves more firmly with the students, believed would come about, simply didn’t. Indeed, what can only be described as a counter-revolution occurred (the steady rise of neo-liberalism).
      Downing street is full of imperialsts as it has been for the last fifty years. Corbyn would not and could not have changed this (though he would have been more likely to avoid armed imperialist intervention). But we simply cannot allow you to put the whole blame for imperialism at the feet of the working class nor the election of Boris Johnson. Corbyn did not address imperalism in his speeches nor his manifesto (he knew it was a vote loser), indeed he (like Milliband before him) expressed support for immigration controls (a cornerstone of modern imperialism). Imperialism glues all classes totegther in the “nation” and its interest over class.
      Challenging imperialism and developing a transition towards a new and better society (avoiding the nonsense of mindless insurrectionism or parliamentary cretinism) is a deep challenge and it requires us to challenge our own myths, one of which is that Althusser and the French Communist Party disarmed (they were never armed that was part of the problem) the revolutionary wave.
      Thank you for continuing to raise debate and discusion, it is most welcome.

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