Following on from CU’s post of yesterday: it all loops back into the Paul Mason theme we’ve discussed before, of whether the current dynamics of capitalism are leading to his much longed-for revolution.
I have been a gig economy player 100% for nearly 15 years (and Mrs D likewise), with the important qualification that we had some (earned) capital behind us at the point I ceased being an employee, so – even though there were still some years of mortgage / school / university fees to be covered – we couldn’t be classed as ‘precariat’, which is the other new coinage often used in this context.
The inherent uncertainties of ‘gig’ are unnerving for anyone who likes a bit of stability or opportunity to plan ahead more than 3 months; and – let’s be honest – I really don’t know how comfortable we would have felt in that mode 10 years earlier with a young family and no capital cushion. However, I started my commercial career when ‘everyone’ went into job-for-life, final-salary style of employment, which can seriously dull the entrepreneurial / self-reliance instincts. (Being in the army before that was *even worse* – you don’t even need to consider where the next meal is coming from, you just place your arse on a chair in front of a table.)
The big change seemed to come in the early ’90s. I well recall the 20-something kids I was managing then, who had grown up in families where the (middle class) breadwinner suddenly lost their job during the various waves of Thatcher-era disruption. These youngsters were much more tolerant of uncertainty than I would have been at their age; their personal career-planning and forward-looking ambition was non-existent as I would have understood it, & psychologically they seemed always prepared for some axe to fall randomly on whatever they were doing at the time. A different approach to life, which seems to work out broadly OK for many. But gigging precariously may not be quite so easy when body and mind start to slow up in late middle age. And we haven’t yet seen what happens when these generations reach retirement with bugger-all pension provision.
The debate takes one of two turns at this point, both taking their cue from one or other of the great 19th century German thinkers. On the hand, Marx (or rather, latter-day marxists like Mason who try to adapt Marx’s proletariat-based thinking) would be inclined to see this trend as (a) an inevitable outworking of late-stage capitalism and (b) creating the ‘alienation’ and despair that trigger the revolution. We see plenty of leftwing hopes pinned on this, even though (as Mason is periodically forced to admit) every apparent new dawn of the past decade has rapidly clouded over for them.
On the other, Nietzsche relished the idea of more bracing times ahead, where constant turmoil and strife would bring out the best in the toughest and most flexible individuals. (His academic background was of course in Homer.) In less dramatic terms, the far less certain employment conditions in the US economy have for a very long time bred a different attitude to life in many sectors of American society, from that of the stability-craving post-war European model.
I’ll end by quoting a passage that captures this approach very neatly – and its flipside:
The advocates of the neo-liberalism suggest that is how it should be. Their vision is of a world of restless freelancers living off their wits project-to-project. The post-modern career is self-assembled. Skills and jobs don’t last long and so unlike their grandparents, Gen Y can’t rely on solid Fordist guarantees. Instead they must dance on hot coals, reinventing themselves towards emerging labour markets, prostituting their ambitions. To fulfil the new economy fantasy they must become the entrepreneurial, “frictionless” workers, mobile and free from the ballast of personal ties. This might suit the youthful graphic designer or the hipster running a digital start-up, but …
But, continues the writer, this rarely suits a certain category of people for whom regular employment “provides an exoskeleton protecting them from the ravages of the market”. This could, I suggest, be quite a large percentage of our fellow citizens. (Of course, the dole plays a similar ‘protective’ role.)
Marx or Nietzsche? They both offered pretty apocalyptic visions that are equally out of fashion in polite society. The 20th century didn’t quite bear either of them out, though from time to time both camps could claim to see the developments in society they were expecting. And the 21st … who knows? Wars, and rumours of wars …