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Patrice Riemens, "The Provocation of Precarity"

"The Provocation of Precarity"

Patrice Riemens

History has it that when Margaretha of Parma, who was regentess of the Low
Countries on behalf of her brother the Spanish king Philipp II, asked the
Dutch nobility to get tough on their protestant-turning populace, their
retort was that they hardly could do so, given "the precarity of their
position and authority". So the people stood fast, and the nobles were
'precarious'. This was the late sixteenth century.

In the early twenty first century, however, precarity has become a greatly
more common situation, as ever larger number of people are hit by a
not-so-silent 'revolution of the reaction' against the welfare state and
all the promises of long term security it used to stand for. Today,
socialism is for the rich (think tax breaks and 'corporate welfare'),
while the public at large partakes in the thrills of the 'risk society'.
Just read the Wall Street Journal and become convinced that taxes suck big
time and solidarity stinks to high heavens.The French philosopher Paul Virilio warned for (post-)modernity's profound
hatred of the future (and of the past as well) in its fundamentalist
worship of profit in the shortest possible term at the least possible
cost. 'Externalisation' is the difficult, and purposefully obfuscating
word economists use to explain — or justify — Capital's jettisoning of
next to all values that have made human society function and progress. But
then, did not Margaret Thatcher famously say that "there is no such thing
as society"?

Another 'Virilian' concept is that of "endo-colonisation". Like prisoners
of collapsing high-rises being told to 'invacuate' (to flee to the inside
of the building), Capital is now going for the subjugation of all aspects
of life in a move variously called 'colonisation of the mind', or more
prosaically, the absolute rule of the market, and of its ideology, defined
by Ignatio Ramonet as a 'pensée unique', or 'one-idea-system'. Why bother
about a dearth of new 'real' territory to conquer, when a complete world
is there to colonise?

All this revolution quite simply means the end of work-as-we-know-it. Up
to now, work was always a very important part of human life, but human
life itself was split up in many aspects, both in time and in place.
Similarly, human societies were carved up in various spheres of influence,
by the (extended) family, the state, the church, culture, and of course
also the economy. But today, global Capital ordains that everything is
business, and all forms, moments, and environments of life either come up
for grabs or are headed for the chop as unsufferable burdens on the
sacrosanct law of profit.

As commercialisation and commodification are going for the farthest
reaches of human existence, Marx's dictum about the reversal of all values
appears to attain absolute validity. And no concept illustrates this so
clearly as precarity. Precarity is just everywhere, and we all are coming
under its rule. And since this is deliberate policy, it signifies the
complete reversal of the quest for security and well-being for the largest
number which had prevailed since Enlilghtenment — ponderous pronouncements
(Human Rights anyone?) to the contrary at the UN and other august, but
ultimately irrelevant bodies notwithstanding.

Hence, not only work, but life in general and in all its domains has
become precarious. And all these domains are amazingly related, and deeply
interwoven. This becomes crystal clear if we substitute precarity for that
current buzz-word: flexibility. It is the term mainstream economists and
politicians favour above its unfathomable cousin, as they hail flexibility
as the supreme virtue and prime condition of economic survival - for
corporate entities that is, never mind human beings.

'Flexibility' at the workplace is a known theme, fast becoming a mantra,
which even unions have started to believe in. But what when flexibility is
also applied to health care? (only available when matched with
'effective demand'), Education? (only for a hefty fee, since it is an
'investment in oneself') Pensions and benefits? (only if you have
'capitalised' enough — and Capital has not squandered your savings)
Knowledge? (no longer 'free', but the battlefield of a ferocious war
around 'intellectual property') Habitat? (market conform real estate
eliminates the 'distortion' of social housing) Culture? (now the realm of
entrepreneurs, cultural ones, of course) Public Transport? ("buses are for
losers" is another infamous Thatcher quote) The environment? (too cheap to
plunder, too expensive to maintain)

In this dispensation, urban centres are no longer social communities, but
commercial ventures. Sicklish 'second wave' industries are discarded in
favour of 'immaterial production', carried forward by 'cognitive labour'
within a 'knowledge economy'. Competition runs out of control, and cities
must become 'creative', yet another variation on the theme of flexibility,
or fall behind. Precarity is the rule for all save the very richest and
most powerful. Migrants, always 'precarious', but now increasingly
victimised and criminalized, are at the bottom of the pyramids. And their
fate actually awaits us all.

To top it all, the increasing withdrawal of the state from its duties
towards the citizenry as part of deregulation and liberalisation policies
may be the ultimate form of 'flexibility' — as the authorities moves into
more profitable areas ("the business of government is business") but
retains the sovereign power to legally (if not legitimately) repress and
oppress the people. And to that purpose, law itself has become 'flexible':
infinite and indefinite, difficult to maintain but even more to abide,
making everybody a criminal on probation and permanent internal exiles in
the bondless reclusion of Empire.

DaDaRa, the Dutch artist famous for his psychedelic dance party flyers,
once made an coat of arms with the device "Yesterday is History — Today is
a Gift — Tomorrow is Mystery". May be this is the best summing-up of
contemporary cannibal capitalism.