Lecture Joost de Bloois – ‘Making Ends Meet: Precarity, Art and Political Activism’, August 13 2011

During the opening of the exhibition ‘Informality’, Dr. Joost de Bloois, lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, department of Literary and Cultural Studies, gave a presentation about the notion of “precarity”. The concept of “precarity”, which is best described as ‘the structural uncertainty of livelihood and income’, serves as a rallying cry for a great number of contemporary protest movements (from the French anti-CPE protests to the Spanish Indignados, via the Greek social movement and recent student protests in Italy and Germany). Equally, “precarity” has become a key notion in both critical theory and artistic practice today. In his lecture Joost de Bloois unpacked the different meanings and the ambiguities of the notion of “precarity” within political and artistic practices and critical theory.

Here you can read the full text of his presentation ‘Making Ends Meet: Precarity, Art and Political Activism’.

‘Making Ends Meet: Precarity, Art and Political Activism’. [1]
Joost de Bloois

We have to face up to the fact that there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor. That opportunism and competition are not a deviation of this form of labor but its inherent structure. That this workforce is not ever going to march in unison, except perhaps while dancing to a viral Lady Gaga imitation video. The international is over. Now let’s get on with the global. Hito Steyerl

A year ago, the chairwoman of the MEDEF, the French employers’ association, Laurence Parisot made the following statement: ‘Life is precarious, health and love are precarious, why would work escape this law?’ Apparently, ‘precarity’ is the law that governs our contemporary universe.
What I would like to do in what follows in a sense is – and of course it will be too brief and simplifying – unpack the presuppositions of this statement. Precarity has indeed become a key notion in many different types of social and political movements today, as well as artistic practices, therefore it is important to discern the many levels of meaning of this notion, that are often intertwined – and, as this statement shows, can be put to use in different ways. ‘Precarity’ is at the heart of contemporary debates concerning the changing nature of work, and crucially, the nature of contemporary capitalism.

Before we move on, a brief definition of ‘precarity’; ‘precarity’ is best described as ‘the structural uncertainty of livelihood and income’ – the emphasis is very much on structural uncertainty. Etymologically: the adjective ‘precarious’ comes from ‘precarus’, which means ‘imploration’: begging God for relief. Already, we can see how ‘precarity’ not only stands for economic/financial insecurity, but has a very strong emotional/affective – and even cultural – dimension. Precarity means that you are continuously questioned in your mode of being (continuously re-evaluated as a productive, or improductive, being); you have to continuously prove yourself in society’s never-ending rat race.

Over the past three decades precarity has imposed itself as the general condition of the everyday lives of large groups of people. The advent of neo-liberal models of economic policies and economic globalization has resulted in what we might call a generalization of financial as well as emotional/cultural precarity. Just to provide you with some everyday examples of precarity, recognizable for most of us: a ‘job for life’ has become a rarity, instead we move from one temporary contract to another (Laurence Parisot precisely made her statement to advocate a law proposal that intended to effectively put an end to the very idea of a ‘fixed’ work contract); at the same time, the financialization, as it is called, of the economy (in so-called ‘casino capitalism’), turns our pensions or the companies we work for into live bate for international hedge funds etc (as the Greek crisis shows, whole countries can be targeted: the post-war welfare state that provided at least a minimal sense of financial and existential security is now up for sale and is being rapidly dismantled); globalization in general causes precarity in the sense that it exposes us (workers, citizens) to economic and political forces that are no longer restricted to the nation state – and therefore cannot be democratically controlled by the citizens of increasingly powerless nation states (today even the super power that is the US is on its knees before the Mammoth of the financial markets); economic globalization makes us vulnerable – also, and perhaps foremost emotionally: just look at the rise of populism and the yearning for identity in Europe today (these are affective shelters against our growing exposure to the outside world).
The recent London riots (that recall the riots in the French banlieues show another, even uglier face of precarity: that of structural exclusion. Precarity also designates the exclusion of large social groups from civil society, the job market and the basic requirements for a stable livelihood and social mobility. Again, the exceptional (exclusion, marginalization) becomes the norm.
So, the concept of ‘precarity’ brings all of this together: uncertainty of livelihood, vulnerability (both financial and emotional), exclusion and the gradual loss of the democratic rights and agency of citizens that was fundamental to modern democratic politics.

Because of this, ‘precarity’ has been claimed by a variety of social movements as their rallying cry. Interestingly, the notion of ‘precarity’ is used to create a new type of social movement; one that is in a sense in tune with the changes that have occurred in global capitalism. We will get to this as well, but it is clear that the ‘traditional’ (that is to say: 19th/20th century) social organizations and social safety nets (unions, the welfare state) stand at best puzzled, but in practice completely disarmed before financial globalization and the increasing casualization/insecurity of work. For example labour organizations such as unions are the product of what is known as Fordist labour: they represent the interest of a class of workers that can be identified as such (they perform the same type of job in the same factory space at the same hours etc); however, today’s workers are a lot less homogenous: ‘flexible’ labour has become the norm – it is a lot more difficult to unify or even to represent workers on short term contracts than workers who enter the factory at 16 and stay there until retirement; also, mandatory ‘flexibilization’ and ‘mobility’ demands from workers that the re-train and continuously ‘develop’ themselves according to the ever-changing demands of ‘the market’ – which, again, makes it very difficult to find a common denominator; finally, the globalization of the work force also undermines traditional forms of labour organizations that served workers united at least by their nationality; it is far more difficult to create forms of social and political representation for workers coming from a variety of countries (EU, non-EU – and a large segment of the labour market today precisely consists of ‘informal’ or ‘illegal’ labour…).

So, all of these developments form a rather massive challenge for contemporary forms of social and labour organizations, and emancipatory movements in general. The overarching question here is: how to unite, represent, empower those who, by the precarious nature of their mode of being, are isolated and disseminated, often invisible and vulnerable; how to turn the precarious into political agents? How to organize labour when it no longer fits the traditional frameworks of labour organization, and when these frameworks have been effectively dismantled by three decades of neo-liberal government?
Interestingly and crucially, the notion of precarity may serve as an instrument for making the ends of the social and cultural spectrum meet. As I said earlier, it is essential to emphasize the structural character of precarity: casual labour, a temporary job is no longer something ‘you grow out of’ – it’s no longer a first step towards ‘a proper job’ (that is to say a stable job that will allow you to buy a house, raise a family, have a pension… in whatever non-normative, disorderly way you’d like to…). Mobility, flexibility, insecurity are no longer the exemption to the rule of a stable income, but affect all ends of the labour market. I’m old enough to remember that being a postman was having a respectable and even enviable job (it meant being employed by state, working relatively few hours for a guaranteed income and pension); today, being a postman is hardly enviable – in this country, the postman has become the gripping example of flexible, exploitative labour (being ‘paid by the parcel’ below minimum wage with virtually no social benefits – that is to say: they form a disposable work force). Now, the same logic of precarity also applies to the ‘higher’ end of the labour market: anyone who aspires to become an academic is in for years of temp work (often replacing those lucky enough to obtain research time), more often than not leading to a stagnation of one’s research output, and therefore blocking the possibility of a stable job; the same story goes for other now much championed sectors such as ICT or the creative industries. ‘Precarity’ here serves as a common denominator that might make the different ends of the labour market meet. As a rallying cry, precarity offers the opportunity for alternative forms of social/political organization, that might counter, for example, the waning of the traditional labour unions. In this sense, precarity not only serves to define a rather bleak shared condition of contemporary workers: precisely the fact that it is a shared condition also provides with the potential for alternative modes of organization. However, while recognizing this potential and – and I would certainly like to underline this – the urgency of this concept of precarity, I think we should also be aware of the various problematics inherent to claiming precarity as a rallying cry.

In this respect, I think it is crucial to consider the history of ‘precarity’ within the social and political movement of the past decades. The ambiguities of ‘precarity’ are already visible in its appearance in the workerist/operaist or autonomist movement in Italy in the 1970’s. Precario bello was in fact coined as an emancipatory notion: precarity was seen as a means of emancipating oneself from the sheer boredom of a working life; being precarious meant that you would no longer be working for the same boss for the rest of your life, but that you could chose to work for a couple of months, than travel for a bit or look elsewhere for a job. ‘Precario bello’ was one of the spearheads in the autonomist project of the working class emancipating itself from capital. However, the developments and metamorphosis within capitalism itself turned this ‘beautiful precarity’ into something else altogether; the great tragedy of the social movements of the 1970’s is that capitalism gave them what they asked for, but in a perverse and distorted way (‘you no longer want to spent your entire life working for the same boss, than that is exactly what you will get’…; ‘you want to be able to move from one job to another, than that is what we will make you do’). [2] This is also the conclusion drawn by French sociologists Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism: the demands made by the various movements in the 1960’s/70’s have in a sense been incorporated into the new capitalism: the demand for more autonomy has been translated into imposed mobility, into permanent adaptation, into the idea that we are all little, individual entrepreneurs who are exposed to the risks and perils of the market; the demand for work as a means of ‘personal development’ has been transformed into the idea that even our personality can be put to work and monetized, etc etc. So, from a potentially liberating notion, precarity is appropriated by the new capitalism.

I think, as a critical concept and rallying cry, ‘precarity’ has perhaps not shaken off this ambiguity (and this is something to reflect on). In contemporary political theory as well as ‘political art’ ‘precarity’ is both rejected as the perverted result of neo-liberal, global capitalism and in a way glamourized: the precarious individual is, as the British sociologist Guy Standing calls it, celebrated as a modern hero: always moving, always connected, devoid of a stable identity etc. Especially within critical theory that mixes Marxist insights with post-structuralist ideas (Marx with Deleuze & Guattari: think for example of Negri&Hardt or Franco Berardi aka Bifo), this leads to the idea that actually existing ‘precarity’ is a mere perversion of ideal precarity – of an ideal type of subjectivity that is in a state of becoming and so on. I would like to underline this tension, as it is particularly visible in contemporary social movements and artistic practices alike. The French anti-CPE protests in 2007/2008 are a good example of this (the protesters explicitely called themselves precarious). The CPE was a proposed law that would allow employers to lay off workers under the age of 28 without notice within the first two years of their employment (the CPE would in fact mean the institutionalization of precarity for young workers). This lead to mass protests of young people basically asking for stability, rather than change (as the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk says: today, it’s the neo-liberal governments that enforce revolutions upon the people, rather than the other way around)- which is a very uneasy sight for progressive eyes. We might also think of what is happening today in Greece, in Spain (the Indignados): we are witnessing the uprising of people asking for not just financial, but existential sustainability instead of change (permanent change is what precisely we have). On the other hand, we also see political movements and critical theory seeking a radicalization of precarity: in certain post-autonomous thinkers and movements (Negri&Hardt, Tiqqun/Invisible committee), we find this idea that generalized precarity, structural uncertainty, signifies that we are in fact at the brink of a wholly new society, even a wholly new vision of ourselves, a wholly new mode of being: one that is no longer based on stability of identity (let alone that we will continue to define ourselves through our profession), but one that is based on becomings, new forms of collective identities etc – that is to say: if we manage to re-claim this precarity, re-claim its liberating potential (re-claim its ontological potential, if you will), and the liberating potential of contemporary capitalism itself, or its apocalyptic implosion… (I will get back to this ambiguity shortly)

In all of these movements and critical theories, the idea of precarity is vital in addressing the question: how to reclaim political agency today? How to turn precarity, as a condition, into something that is not merely paralyzing and demoralizing, but something unifying and empowering? How to reclaim forms of citizenship (political subjectivity), when the traditional conditions for citizenship (belonging to a certain class, having a certain nationality) are no longer self-evident? How to turn the multitude of isolated, precarious workers into an effective political agent?
Of course, this does not mean claiming that all precarious workers are ‘in it together’: being a precarious academic or artist is certainly no picnic, but it is not the same as being a precarious migrant worker, a precarious cleaner etc. The protest movements of the 60/70’s that I just mentioned precisely rebelled against traditional forms of political and social organization (unions and socialist parties in particular) that overlooked the diversity of the work force (that overlooked the presence of women, the young or immigrants). We should avoid both turning social/cultural differences into absolutes (as if cleaners and artists are worlds apart that will never overlap – this is a strategy that is handily exploited by populist discourse for example) and romanticizing precarity as our new and unproblematically equalizing human condition (this would amount to doing the same thing as Laurence Parisot, who presented precarity as a natural law of sorts). Precarity does demonstrate that, structurally, postmen, academics and artists have lots in common, but this is not a matter of mere equivalence. Precisely, the crucial issue here is how to persuasively employ the complexity of precarity in order to bring these, culturally and socially, very different groups together politically? This is where art and political activism are overlapping, and I would like to look at that briefly.

Art plays a highly ambiguous role in what Boltanski and Chiapello call ‘the new spirit of capitalism’. The proliferation of precarity, at least in the West, takes place, for an important part, within the transition from so-called Fordist to post-Fordist economic models. That is to say: from highly regulated, repetitive, physical labour we have moved towards flexible and ‘immaterial labour’. In the West today, a significant part of the labour force no longer sees its physical labour power exploited, but, on the contrary, its communicative, emotional and creative skills (for example in the ICT sector, the new media, but also in care work – so again, these are not just the ‘high end’ jobs). The center of gravity of Western economies has moved towards the immaterial and the cognitive (see, for example, the dominance of the financial markets, the dominance of speculation over production) (the same goes for the ‘informal economy’ that consists not just of, say, sweat shops but also of ‘personalized services’, care work such as child care and prostitution, as well as loan sharks). In this new economy that thrives upon cognitive and emotional exploitation of our communicative and creative skills and total flexibility/permanent mobilization, the artist serves as the new Stakhanov (the name of the model worker in the Soviet Union). As Richard Florida infamously said in his book on the Creative City: today, the model for our working environment is no longer Henry Ford’s factory, but Andy Warhol’s factory… What has long been the privilege of art – communication, creativity, collaboration – has moved to the forefront of the economy. I would even hazard to state that, today, art has in fact been surpassed by this process; after having fuelled the creative industries, art is now in the process of dissolving into the creative industries. The irony today is of course that the creative industries are now being presented to the arts as the example to follow (artists should all become ‘creative entrepreneurs’): the creative industries are now rewarded by Dutch government policies, whereas the arts are being cut – this only affirms an ongoing movement to which the arts are to date incapable of finding a response. The precarious working conditions of the art world, the precarious status of the artist have been appropriated by the new spirit of capitalism, and is now, in a sense, being turned against art: art can no longer claim its exceptional status. If art wants to survive, other than as fuel for the international art market, other than as investment object for the super rich, it has to take into account its own dissolution into these economic models (again, the irony here is that the avant-garde idea of the end of art is being realized/imposed on art, rather than being accomplished by art itself).

One way of taking this process into account can be found in post-autonomous theorists (such as Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, Berardi). Already in the 1970’s the Italian autonomists (Mario Tronti) coined the notion of the ‘social factory’: they already noticed how capitalism was trying to put to work all sectors of the social network (education, housework, social and cultural activities are all in the service of capitalism – politics itself becomes a mere process of managing the economy). The transition towards an ‘immaterial’ economy extends the social factory towards our brains and creativity. To use the old Marxist notion: today’s economy is that of ‘real subsumption’: everything becomes part of capital – everything becomes labour: we work for FaceBook when we share our holiday snaps, we work for Google when we are researching information, we work when we have that brilliant idea for a project, an essay when we’re taking shower or walking the dog… And we do this together: capitalism taps into what is called, again in Marxist/autonomist jargon, ‘the general intellect’: what is most valuable today for the economy is not heavy machinery but our brains. Again, art is part of that general intellect, up to the point of merely becoming one of its many connections. Now, for people like Negri or Virno, this is not just claustrophobic: the new connected, networked and creative capitalism also, in a sense, seems to realize age-old communist dreams: we are connected, we are simulateously workers/producers and consumers, we posses the means of production, namely our own linguistic, creative skills. It’s just that, for the time being, we still serve the markets – yet, ‘the communism of capital’ is already in place: all it takes is an exodus from capital, a quasi-ontological leap of the multitude that will allow it finally seize itself.

At the same time, and often in the work of the same critics, we hear less optimistic sounds (again, we seem to be inable to escape a certain ambiguity): if capitalism today manages to even mobilize our emotions and our and affective creative skills, than we are totally at the mercy of capitalism. There is no in-between any longer that can negociate between capital and workers (no civil society, no unions, no parliment) – the riots in London show just that: precarity also means the total absence of social/cultural mediation; the looters simply demonstrated that nothing stands between them and capital. Here, art may step in – not because it has any privileged position from which it may speak on behalf of others less privileged, but precisely because it is an integral part of the capitalist infrastructure today: if art is an intrinsic part of the current economic regime, than this means that art can also act upon it, however marginally. However, I think it is absolutely vital that this would take place not from an anachronistic idea of the avant-garde; if art is merely one of the many dots of the social and economic network, than it should act alongside other possible social and political actors, without claiming to ‘represent them’.

If art is an intrinsic part of the current economic regime, artists should recognize themselves as working subjects, whose work precisely is shaped or conditioned by that regime. Rather than representing sad postmen with tears dangling from the corner of their eye or being led by misguided dreams of all too literal autonomy, art should take its economic and political functioning as a starting point for exploring a different practice, a different politics and make use of the means that the economic regime has put at the disposal of the artist (which closely connect to for example the creative industries or forms of emotional labour). Art as political know how rather than representation.[3] (I would like to reject the emphasis on ‘resistance’, which is just another avatar of the avant-garde, that pops up in certain contemporary artistic practices and during protests against the cuts in the art world- Cf. the work of Jonas Staal.) [4]
If artists do not succeed in creating new alliances, they will inevitably find themselves among what German critic Diedrich Diederichsen calls the new bio-political proletariat: those who provide the entertainment industry with the outpouring of their emotions, their bodies and their wit (comedians, porn stars and Big Brother contestants); once more, they will be precarious workers among many.

Obviously, political art that reflects upon precarity already is are quite prolific, as this project shows –on the one hand, we can think of projects such as Precarias a la Deriva in Spain, the Italian Chain Workers collective, The Precarious Workers Brigade from London etc; on the other hand, individual artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, Hito Steyerl, Hans Haacke or Alan Sekula in their (often documentary) work investigate contemporary working conditions. I think that in these projects and works we find the same ambiguity that seems to haunt the idea of precarity: they are often inspired by what we might call a post-situationist, interventionist aesthetic; or, in the case of Hirschhorn for example, they take ‘precarity’ literally and mimic it in the use of disposable materials and the explicit situatedness of the work in ‘underprivileged’ urban areas (see Hirschhorn’s Bijlmer Spinoza Project). These works seem to embrace or mimic a certain precarity: a certain mobility, a lack of duration, an interventionist aesthetic (which sometimes amounts to a fetishizing of protest). On the one hand, obviously they proceed from the notion that the new, networked and volatile capitalism, asks for networked and mobile strategies; this of course makes perfect sense but, on the other hand, these strategies remain, for artists, part of their comfort zone: interventionism, ready-mades, performances simply are the weapons of choice of the 20th century avant-garde.

The question is whether these strategies can constitute a response to precarity; the paradox of precarity is that claiming precarity as a rallying cry means claiming something in order to overcome it. This overcoming does not mean a return to 20th century Fordism or the nation-state (that served as the condition for the welfare state) – a return that is impossible in part due to globalization and immigration, in part to technological developments etc. Any alternative to the current structural precarity, will have to be global and networked (the fate of Dutch workers and artists is closely connected to that of workers in say China…). I am not convinced whether the, part involuntary, endorsement and even celebration of precarity in current aesthetic strategies is very helpful in finding this alternative (neither is the ‘soft’ version of this: artists celebrating their status as freelance creatives and cultural entrepreneurs). A significant amount of contemporary movements and artists that claim precarity as their badge of honor are all too eager to reject what remains of the existing social infrastructure in favor of the stateless and subjectless future to come – or the apocalyptic insurrection that will facilitate it. For the time being the remnants of the welfare state may be all we have; they might at least serve as a take off ground for new emancipatory politics. Political philosophers such as Toni Negri or Ulrich Beck propose the garantueed or social income as one of the main objectives for emancipatory social movements today – whatever you may think of this, it does provide a corner stone of sorts for a progressive politics that is not merely protective and reactionary. Finding the means to reclaim a permanent political agency might be only way to turn the precariat into the truly new dangerous class, as Guy Standing calls it. In this context, art may act as know how: as a means of investigation, into new forms of durable agency and representation; as a means of investigation that transcends mere reflexivity and interventionist critique; as experimentation of new forms of organization by the working subject; all this alongside, but not necessarily in the service of social and political movements.

What has been overlooked in a lot of the discussions concerning the brutal financial cuts in the arts in this country, is that these are not just about art; art is but one of the many forms of previously common goods that need to be subjected to the economic regime. Art as know how actively investigates a society that sees art as a common good, as a commonly accessible good and not as a commercial niche among others. If not, art will slowly but inevitably dissolve into generalized precarity, like the rest of us.

[1] This text was presented at the opening of ‘Informality: Art, Economics, Precarity’ at SMBA, August 13th; it has not been altered, hence its informal and generalizing character.

[2] The fate of ‘precarity’ seems to confirm the autonomist intuition that if the working class does not emancipate itself from capital, capital most certainly will emancipate itself from the working class – which is what we have been witnessing for the past couple of decades…

[3] As Hito Steyerl writes: “Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception. If we take this on, we might surpass the plane of a politics of representation and embark on a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace.” E-flux#21

[4]Likewise, the notion of  ‘resistance from within’ is problematic, and with it the, now very popular, imagery of the ‘invisible enemy’. We do not need a(nother) détournement of representations, what we need is a détournement of practices.

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