Precarity and ELT Part Two: A Philosophical Review

In the first part of this discussion we started with a concrete rebuttal of the idea that current labour relations are dominated by short-term contracts and zero-hour contracts. This was not a rebuttal that such labour relations exist or that certain industries like academia and TEFL are not largely dominated by such precarious arrangements but that they are not widespread and not growing at the rate often claimed. Nor was it a rebuttal of the fact that despite the continuation of permanent contracts and relatively low official unemployment rates and relatively high official labour participation rates, people feel their lives to be increasingly precarious. Indeed, as the video presentation shows, discussion of precarity and precariousness has rocketed amongst the populations of the advanced core since 2010.

In this part we want to briefly review some of the more philosophical offerings of those writing on the issue and compare them to a more orthodox Marxist position. Not because we want to show the superiority of either but rather that we want to open up a productive dialogue which will help teachers and others reflect more clearly on their experiences and, hopefully, contribute to strategy and tactics which make us feel a little less vulnerable and better supported. A process, as we said which was first explicitly addressed by Paul Walsh in his writings here and here.

Precariousness a human condition

Contrary to the statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains” (a convenient rallying call against aristocratic bonds), we are indeed (men and women) born completely helpless and dependent on the love/goodwill/future plans of others. Not only this but at some point either through steady physical degeneration through old age or some unfortunate occurrence beforehand (accident, contagion, war etc.) we will die. Moreover, the people we love and the things we care about are not permanent either and we stand every chance of losing some those most precious things before we ourselves die. The best thing we can hope for, maybe, is that we live in some comfort and pleasure until we are old, that our children and significant other(s) outlive us and that the things we cared about can be passed to others who will cherish them equally if not more. It is a wonderful sense of irony that Rousseau gave all his children to an orphanage so he could dedicate his life to writing about morality and child-rearing. Perhaps orphanages are indeed the best start in life a child can have and great men should never be disturbed by their noise and demands but what is important is that his children were not born free but very much subject to Rousseau’s firm belief that “all the morality of our acts is in the judgement that we ourselves pass on them” (i.e., moral subjectivism).

Not only on an individual level but on a collective level we face the threat of “natural acts” that could decimate us as a species. We should not forget for instance that the explosion of Toba nearly 70,000 years ago nearly wiped out our species before it really began or the black death plague which ravaged Europe (resulting in an estimated 50 million deaths) during the middle ages. And now we face the challenges of climate change, brought about through the so-called Anthropocene; so beautifully and richly explored by Timothy Morton (which perhaps best challenges the idea of any “natural” act experienced by humans as other to nature). We are, like it not, doomed to a precarious existence (it is what we do to stave off such crisis, offer comfort and meaning in the face of such “terror” which should define us as human beings).

Back to Marx

Generally Marxists have not welcomed the work of one man, Guy Standing, who has been most acquainted with the idea of precarity and indeed the precariat. For Standing the precariat stands in opposition to the proletariat. Indeed, while the proletariat for him is no longer a revolutionary subject, he does not see the Precarity as one either, rather it is a dangerous class which is open to right wing populist manipulation. We heartily recommend reading Standing’s work although we have strong disagreements with it. It is well-researched and subtle in its interpretations of the challenges facing people on temporary and zero hour contracts. However, its solution “a basic income” (waged work being an opportunity to top up one’s earnings rather than a necessity) is equally about managing this dangerous class as it is liberating people from the need to work. It is no great surprise to us that one of the early exponents of a “basic income” was the right-wing economist Milton Friedman who saw the welfare state as inefficient (employing hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats to manage it) and in need of being replaced by a system that awarded the basic minimum to all believing that most people with a modicum of aspiration and consumerism would fill the factories and offices with willing labour. Indeed, Guy Standing is usually seen in Marxist circles as the new Andre Gorz, supplementing Gorz’s original work on “Farewell to the Working Class”.

We do not see Guy Standing (or for that matter Andre Gorz) as devils. They are merely articulating patterns of work and subjectivity gaining traction in the epochs in which they write. What’s more they are writing about labour conditions some considerable years after Marx, after having watched major changes in the advanced core of capitalist countries and the considerable decline in socialist consciousness, let alone revolutionary socialist consciousness, amongst the masses.

However, it is useful to say that Marx saw the proletariat as a precarious class and not a class in secure employment with guaranteed working conditions. Indeed, even Standing’s “precariat” live far more stable lives than the proletariat of which Marx was speaking. It was Lenin and others who later came to see a division between a layer of working people enjoying improved working conditions and those still in precarious conditions, and coined the term “Labour Aristocracy” to explain this group’s historic compromise with Capitalism and its reformist consciousness; namely funded by their position in an imperialist world order where such a layer could be bought off by gains made plundering poorer countries. Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, which is insightful but far from convincing, does provide a base for understanding Guy Standing’s idea (though similarly flawed) of a breach between those in secure employment and those not.

What we take from Marx is that Capitalism brought about a new kind of precariousness. Not that precariousness did not exist before but that Capitalism represented a possibility of both reducing precariousness (i.e., increasing productivity and abolishing scarcity) but also new forms of precariousness not seen before, namely unemployment and the threat of unemployment. This insight was not particularly new but it was how he developed this insight which is important to understanding precarity. For example in England, with the expulsion of farm labourers from the land and turning arable land into pasture for sheep so wool could be sold across the continent, the landowners grew rich at the expense of the farm labourers expelled from the land, unemployed and without any means to support themselves. Adam Smith recognised this and suggested that in such cases the state should employ the displaced persons to build roads and undertake other public works.

Where Marx took this insight to a new level was in his general analysis of Capitalism that “everything solid melts into air”. Meaning that in the circuit of capital accumulation, capital is forever seeking new profitable ventures, there is no safe hiding place for capital because it is always caught in a circuit where profitable enterprises or assets could soon find themselves severely devalued and unprofitable. This analysis went beyond the speculative bubbles Capitalism had experienced during its development to an understanding that dead labour (money invested in factories and machines, houses, art) had come from the surplus value created by labour power (living labour). That while living labour is the creative force of humanity (sustaining us and our communities materially and emotionally, expressing our creativity), under capitalism living labour was subordinated to dead labour (i.e., the rhythm of the machine, the business cycle and production and distribution of money). Indeed, as there were only 24 hours in the day Capital was forced to invest in machinery which replaced large sections of the workforce meaning the remaining workers could produce more per hour. Unfortunately, for Capitalism, what is good for an individual capitalist (the fallacy of scale) is not necessarily good for Capitalism, and with a number of competing capitalists investing in machinery those same factory owners are suddenly stuck with less workers to buy products, machines which can’t operate at full capacity for an over-saturated market and the impossibility of recovering the original investment made in that same machinery. Then the system collapses, bigger capitals buy up smaller competitors, investors find new sources to invest in and workers re-enter the labour market as Capitalism swings into boom phase (with profits rising). Marx talked about the anarchy of the market and the authoritarianism of the factory as two contradictory but necessary features of Capitalism with its subordination of living labour to dead labour. He coined the term reserve army of labour to explain that Capitalism sucked in workers and had an insatiable appetite to do so during the boom phase (rising profits) but was quick to expel them when Capitalism hit its inevitable downphase (profit-squeeze).

Of course Capitalism now is not the same as the 19th century, at least not in the advanced core of capitalist countries, with their welfare states, heavily monopolised markets, domination of capital flows through world markets, outsourcing of “low value” manufacturing  to “developing countries” (as opposed to just the capture at cheap prices of raw materials). Yet, still Capitalism shows its chronic inability to overcome its boom bust cycle, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crash from which we are only just recovering, aware that the next recession lies close around the corner. To quote Istvan Meszaros “it is not light at the end of the tunnel we can see but on an oncoming train”.

Marx’s analysis is more pertinent than ever, living labour is more subordinated to dead labour than ever. The great monuments to death rise up against the city skylines of major cities as the homeless are driven by police from the doorways in which they seek shelter from the cold, the great lie of all boats rising with a rising tide undermined by the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, many escaping wars funded by the very countries who are building towers of death around the world from which the rich can escape when events turn against them others in their native countries; the lucky ones – the survivors, those captured by armed coastal patrol ships are herded into refugee camps where women and children suffer sexual exploitation.

And I suppose this is one of the contradictions of precarity, that it is a word used to describe a situation in the advanced capitalist world while wars rage around the walls those countries have built to keep those who are truly precarious from entering. There is no doubt that people are suffering from new precarious work relations but such suffering is nothing compared to the vast misery and human carcases piling up on the borders (What Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes as Auschwitz on the Beach). For Marx the working class had to universalise its experience before it could abolish itself, it had to become a class for itself rather than in itself. It is only when we can incorporate the precariousness of others (that we truly universalise through our separate international experience) that we can begin to truly fight our own precariousness.

Judith Butler and Hannah Arendt

For us it is no accident that large scale discussions of of precariousness in academic circles in the advanced Capitalist core began after September 11th 2001. While they have come to incorporate, indeed be dominated by, issues of labour relations, it was with the attack on the world Trade Centre in New York that the precariousness of life and the inability of large monolithic states with a vast imperial reach to “protect its citizens” came to the fore. In a series of Post 9/11 essays Judith Butler wrote:

US boundaries were breached, that an unbearable vulnerability was exposed, that a terrible toll on human life was taken, were, and are, cause for fear and mourning; they were also instigations for patient political reflection … [We should ask] whether the experiences of fear and loss have to lead straightaway to military violence and retribution … It would not be possible to maintain that the US has greater security problems than some of the more contested and vulnerable peoples of the world … The dislocation from first world privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minim-ised, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknow- ledged as the basis for global political community … Final control is not, and cannot be, an ultimate value.”

As highlighted in bold, Butler sees this event as challenging our notions of comfort and safety and a temporary space to view the world anew, but much of that perspective, accelerated by the great financial crash of 2008 and the sluggish growth and austerity (at least for some) which has followed has turned the discussion inwards, be it through a rightwing (anti-migrant) or leftwing perspective (anti-austerity).

This is unfortunate because Judith Butler links the two in powerful fashion distinguishing “precariousness” (an ontological condition) from “precarity” (the unequal distribution of precariousness):

Philosopher Judith Butler’s writing is a cornerstone for the growing body of literature on precarity. Butler draws a critical distinction between ‘precariousness’ and ‘precarity’. She sees precariousness as a generalised human condition that stems from the fact that all humans are interdependent on each other and therefore all are vulnerable. In her scheme, precarity is different precisely because it is unequally distributed. Precarity is experienced by marginalised, poor, and disenfranchised people who are exposed to economic insecurity, injury, violence, and forced migration. Further, social value is ascribed to some lives and bodies, while it is denied to others, and some are protected, while others are not. Neoliberalism, war, and climate crises render these inequalities especially acute. Butler sees the potential for emancipation in embracing the common circumstance of precariousness, as against the unequal fate of precarity. She renounces politics that aim at achieving stability for select groups and instead favors an egalitarian precariousness for all as a liberating moment (Butler 2004, 2010).”

We would also add here that Butler is reviving the work of Hanna Harendt and her passionate writings about the necessity of a public sphere in which we take responsibility for each other. Unfortunately Butler does not explore Arendt’s fear of the totalising effect of the corporate world on the individual and how the “personal is political” opens us up to further invasion by such corporate forces and separation from our fellow human beings (finding a particular technological and frightening twist in the impact of social media like the filter bubbles created by facebook and Google which maybe Arendt could never have anticipated but certainly provides us with an excellent starting point for critique).

Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennet

More than anyone Bauman has taken Marx’s insight that “all is solid melts into air” and applied it to a modern more accelerated context in his work on the “Liquid Society”. There are too many insights to mention here but clearly Bauman is concerned with how this liquidity, this undermining of solid foundations, has affected our attempts to navigate the modern world. Bauman’s work is mirrored, albeit in a different mode of discourse, in Richard Sennet’s marvelous book, “The Corrosion of Character”. Both author’s are essential to understanding the new subjectivities that have arisen during the last 30 years or so.

It is important to note, however, that perhaps Bauman’s greatest contribution to discussions of precarity can be found in his short book “Wasted Lives”. Here Bauman talks about certain human beings being surplus to requirement, no different from the piles of waste produced by modern consumerist society that must be collected, tidied up and relocated to a safe area (or maybe even recycled to be used again). He contrasts the modern “refugee crisis” with a time when the advanced capitalist core exported its surplus populations to foreign lands, clearing native populations aside, to make space for the new inhabitants and their new ways of exploiting the land and other resources. This would seem to mirror Marx’s idea of a reserve army but understand it from the idea of an integrated world market where the movement of labour between borders has become such an issue of international “waste management”. We might ask to what extent “TEFL adventurism” is a convenient way of dealing with surplus university graduates (at least for a year or two).


Foucault is indispensable to thinking about the new subjectivities which accompany precarious work relations (especially ELT). However, like Guy Standing (who incidentally abhors Foucault’s work) Foucault has a tendency to over-generalise the extent of these new labour relations and subjectivities. Indeed, it is a problem with Foucault generally who bends history to fit his theories rather than adjusts his analysis to fit historical facts.

This said, we are extremely indebted to Foucault, particularly for his work on power and his rejection of outmoded concepts of power in that they only exist as the exercise of “power over others”.

Under such a reading, power is neither possessed, nor does it lead to a repressive form of domination, whereby individuals’ conduct is consciously manipulated by other individuals. Power, in fact, ‘doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no’ (Foucault, 1980: 119). Instead, it is ‘productive,’ insofar as it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse’ (Foucault, 1980: 119). To suggest that it is ‘productive’ means that power is not so much responsible for prohibiting particular practices, as it is instrumental in guiding and normalising particular conducts. It means directing one’s attention to the conditions under which subjectivity is produced and generalised through the ‘discipline of bodies’ and ‘regulation of the population’ (Foucault, 2009). Thus, rather than acting as a repressive force as, for example, a ‘right to take life or let live’ (Foucault, 1990: 138) power turns the body into an ‘object of political strategy’ (Foucault, 2009: 16) that, in the form of ‘biopower,’ aims to either ‘foster life or disallow it to the point of death’ (Foucault, 1990: 138). In his genealogy of the neoliberal subject, Foucault provides an insight into the kind of biopolitics marking the neoliberal age. More specifically, he traces the emergence of an entrepreneurial subjectivity, understood as the contingent outcome of biopolitical state interventions guiding ‘the possibility of conduct’ through ‘competitive mechanisms’ that ‘play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society’ (Foucault, 2008: 145).

More explicitly in terms of this new biopolitic:

The neoliberal art of government’s success, therefore, lies in its capacity to compel the individual to become an ‘entrepreneur of himself [sic]’ (Foucault, 2008: 145), by adopting the form of conduct thought to be most appropriate for the various challenges posed by the ‘dynamic of competition’ (Foucault, 2008: 147). Since individuals are active in its production and because it is ‘generalized to all aspects of existence’ (Lazzarato, 2008: 121), that entrepreneurial subjectivity is all encompassing and, consequently, acts as a prism through which all decisions come to be rationalised and individuals come to ‘accept,’ and adjust to the reality of personal responsibility, competition and precarious life (Foucault, 2008: 269). It follows that no analytical or empirical distinction between the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ interests (Lukes, 2015) of individuals can effectively be made, for no true or real interests are said to exist outside the subjectivity in question. Truth and interests can change, but in virtue of their discursive character, they are dependent on the emergence of an entirely new regime of truth; of a new subjectivity.”

Where we would disagree with Foucault (in addition to the reservations expressed earlier) is that we would argue that both forms of power (“power over” and “power through”) coexist dialectically in Capitalism. Crucially for us, Foucault is a counterweight against Standing’s idea of “managing precarity” through governmental means rather than (as per Hannah Arendt) creating new social spaces and subjectivities in which we can rethink precariousness (which may involve regulatory changes which go way beyond a left cover for Friedman-like social policy).


Unfortunately we have no space left for the precursive work of Beck and Bourdieu but we would not discourage readers from reading either in order to bring themselves up to date on the major thinkers behind contemporary readings on precariousness. In the final part we will see how we can bring this philosophical review to life in our discussion of the concrete expression of precarity and precariousness in the world of ELT.

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