(Re)conceptualizing precarity: structure, institutions and agency
Guy Standing’s The Precariat has had a significant impact in stimulating a debate about the changing nature of work across the broad sweep of the global economy. He advances the notion of precarious workers, originally put forward by Italian autonomist Marxists, to suggest that they constitute a new and separate class. This article reflects on the notion of precarious work and addresses the temporal, historical and analytical weaknesses manifest in many accounts by proposing a political economy synthesis. The discussion takes place through a political economy theoretical lens that takes seriously the structures and institutions of capitalism and the agency of workers individually and collectively. First, it is argued that two key structural influences on precarity are the spatiality of capitalism and its endemic tendency to crisis. Second, temporal and institutional ‘shapers’ of precarity are discussed in historical and comparative context. Third, the agential influence on precarity is examined with regard to the possibility of the self-organization precarious workers and their potential for forging solidarity with other groups. The article concludes that precarious work is intrinsic to capitalism and therefore the precariat cannot be understood as a class-in-itself. The implications of this for activists is that solidarity needs to be forged between all groups of workers in order to organise for decent and stable employment.