A Terrible Precariousness

Francesco Di Bernardo

The transition from the post-war welfare state to neoliberalism has been accompanied in Western countries by a series of events that Jan Breman, in an article in the New Left Review, summarizes as follows: 

[P]rivatizations and public-sector cutbacks have served to weaken the position of labour in North America, Europe and Japan; trade-union movements were hollowed out by the shrinkage of the industrial workforce, through factory re-location or robotization, and the growth of the non-unionized service and retail sectors; […] the globalization of trade helped to depress wages and working conditions further. (Breman n.pag.)

Spell remains

Thatcher’s legacy – hate and resentment

[Image by Delete under a CC BY-SA license]

The socio-economic transition to post-industrial work practices has also been characterized by what Maurizo Lazzarato defines as ‘the great transformation’ (Lazzarato 133), in other words the increasing intellectualization of work determined by processes of informatization and the creation of ‘immaterial labour’ (Lazzarato 132). The creation of ‘immaterial labour’ accompanied by phenomena such as those described in Breman’s words quoted above have gone hand in hand with, to quote from Breman again, the rise of ‘[p]art-time and short-contract […] along with that ambiguous category, self-employment’ (Breman n.pag.). As a result we have witnessed the rise of a typically post-industrial ‘class’: the precariat.

I have deliberately put the word class in inverted commas to signal that identifying the precariat with a social class in Marxian terms is still an argument largely debated. Breman’s previously cited article, for instance, challenged Guy Standing’s theorization of a global precariat and its identification with a social class. Standing, in fact, affirms in an article in openDemocracy: ‘The precariat has class characteristics: it can be defined in relation to other groups and consists of people sharing […] similar class features, all tendencies or trends’.  Certainly, the rise of the precariat as social subject is a typical phenomenon of a neoliberal society. Although casual and unstable jobs have always existed, nonetheless ‘the modal member of the precariat is unlike the old proletarian in having a level of formal schooling that is well above the level of the job he or she is expected to do. This is historically unique’ (Standing n. pag). Most importantly, however, ‘[p]recariatization is about loss of control over time and the development and use of one’s capabilities’ (Standing n. pag.).   

This loss of control over time and development of one’s capacities can therefore be explained in terms of bio-power. Foucault coined the word to refer to ‘the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species [become] the object of political strategy’ (Foucault 1). Under neoliberalism the exercise of political power is modelled on the principles of market economy (see Foucault 131). Precarization of all the aspects of human experience becomes therefore a way to police society. Zygmunt Bauman explains that the neoliberal post-industrial society, which he calls ‘liquid’, is characterized by the ‘policy of deliberate precarization’ (Bauman 163). Drawing from Deleuze, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri affirm that the neoliberal society is a typical example of a society of control, in which the mechanisms of control are ‘increasingly interiorized within the subjects themselves’. The precarization of work can therefore be seen as bio-politics. The neoliberal ruling elites which theorized and implemented “flexible” working practices, de facto obtained control over the workforce by gaining control over any aspect of life. The precariat is, in fact, often characterized by having an unstable life, socially and emotively. The life of the precarious worker is moreover marked by what Bauman defines as, deriving from Lagrange, derivative fear, ‘the sentiment of being susceptible to danger; a feeling of insecurity […] and vulnerability’ (Bauman 3).


Imagining biopower

[Image by John Ledger under a CC BY-NC license]

The precariat is therefore a quintessential expression of a neoliberal global capitalist society. Representing and understanding the precariat thus means understanding the very nature of contemporary society. However, a question arises: how can the precariat be represented in the novel? Although a progressively increasing part of the population in the West can be associated with the precariat, nonetheless, because of the novelty and elusiveness of this social category, it is still underrepresented in novels. A cause may reside in the lack of agency. Although the level of literacy is averagely higher than the traditional proletariat, it seems that this new class is afflicted by a lack of representation and self-representation. This depends on two factors. Firstly, as Standing notices, the precariat is afflicted by ‘identity confusion’: its members, especially those with a higher education, feel uncomfortable about being associated with either the working-class or the middle-class, for example. The second factor depends on the internalization of social norms and with the self-blaming culture fostered by neoliberal propaganda. The combination of these two factors results in what Pierre Bourdieu defines as social suffering which impedes agency.  

The problem of agency and representability in literature is normally associated with working-classes. In his 1961 volume The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams highlights that the social origins of the English writers (mostly from the middle or upper-middle class) pose the serious question of the agency of the working class and also pose the problem of the representability of the working-class (see Williams 230-246). Representations of the poor and of the working-classes are therefore always in danger of slipping into misrepresentation, lack of representation, and fetishization. Problems of representation of the precariat are, similarly to the working-class, due to a lack of voice in society, but also due to the issue of definition of this new and evolving social class. Moreover, the terms precarious, precariousness and precariat are relatively new in the vocabulary of sociology.

The Italian case is quite exemplary of the condition of the precariat. The beginning of the precarization of labour can be dated back to the mid-1980s and more consistently to the 1990s and, as noted by Marcello Tarì and Ilaria Vanni, in absence of any social security net, it has taken on a tragic form. The result is that the vast majority of the young population is unable to live an independent life and often has to rely on family support. Since 2004 there has been an attempt to aggregate the scattered individualities associable with the precariat. This attempt takes the form of the network of San Precario. As Tarì and Vanni explain: ‘San Precario functions as a rhetorical device to move into the public arena a critical awareness of the changes in conditions and forms of work, of the shift from permanent positions to casual (Italian precario/a) modes of employment’.

San Precario large

In a new era of precariousness the old patron saints are being updated

[Image by Samuele Ghilardi under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

At the same time authors have been interrogating conducive ways to represent this important but underrepresented phenomenon. The poetry of Francesco Targhetta, or the works of Ascanio Celestini among many others provide some examples. Also in Britain there has been a proliferation of zero-hours contracts in recent years. Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010) provides an insightful example of representation of precarious labour. The novel deals with the precarious conditions of life in a neoliberal society and provides an insightful literary perspective on the consequences of the precarization of labour under global capitalism.

Firstly, the novel offers a glimpse on the policies of de-industrialization pursued by Thatcher in order to provide the background of the representation of the changed rise of immaterial labour. It does so by referring to the dismissal of Longbridge plant. The plant plays a fundamental role in Coe’s historical narration of the labour relations in the past four/five decades. It recurs in Coe’s previous novels such as The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2003) and has a symbolic importance due to the fact that it is a symbol of Birmingham’s working-class history. In The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim the main character Maxwell Sim drives along the ruins of the plant:

I was driving now past the gaping hole in the landscape where the old Longbridge factory used to be. It was a weird experience: when you revisit the landscapes of your past, you expect to see maybe a few cosmetic changes […] but this was something else – an entire complex of factory buildings which used to dominate the whole neighbourhood […] throbbing with the noise of working machinery, alive with the figures of thousands of working men and women […] all gone. Flattened, obliterate. (Coe 155)

The reference to obliteration of the industrial past, along with describing the transition to post-industrialism and the rise of immaterial labour also metaphorically suggests that neoliberalism has obliterated the working-class communities and particularly the security nets they provided, and has scattered the communities of workers into isolated, atomized individualities. 


Thatcher’s policies of de-industrialization changed the physical and cultural landscapes of Britain

[Image by George Thomas under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

Coe’s novel highlights the relation between precarious labour and solitude, precarious personal life, stressing the above described bio-political role of policies of precarization. The individual, deprived of any human or social bonds, is left stranded struggling with an uncertain reality. The novel opens with a description which is highly metaphorical of the precarious condition. It recounts through the narrative device of a newspaper article the story of the Police rescue of Maxwell Sim, found naked and nearly dead due tohypothermia in his car while on a business trip. Maxwell Sim is a freelance salesman for a company specialized in ecologically friendly toothbrushes (see Coe 1). The section evokes Miller’s Death of a Salesman: the failure of fulfilling the American Dream in Miller’s play is mirrored by Maxwell’s failure to fulfil the neoliberal dream of self-entrepreneurship. The themes of cold and freeze remind the Alaskan and Western imaginary of Miller’s play. The loneliness faced by the human being when the individualist purse of success ends in a failure is a central theme in both Coe’s and Miller’s works. 

Along with literary references, this section has also multiple relevancies. Firstly it represents the condition of solitude of the individual in postmodern times. The naked body certainly symbolizes the lack of social protection and hypothermia reminds of the lack of empathy and the un-affectivity of the liquid society.

This critique of precarious labour is also conveyed in this section through the reference to Sim’s employment on a freelance basis. The idea of freelancing not only refers to the post-industrial condition of work but also to the consequences of this condition on the wider spectrum of human life. Freelancing, in fact, epitomizes the condition of the liquid precarious condition in postmodern society where relationships among humans are “consumed” as a product and commitments are made on a temporary basis, ‘until further notice’ (Bauman 162-164). Throughout the novel Maxwell Sim engages in relationships which are all ephemeral and superficial, with an expiry date, a situation which echoes the inability to develop stable human bonds under the precarious conditions imposed by neoliberal bio-power.

Rigby & Loneliness

Cross-stitched mask on Eleanor Rigby statue: provoking people to think about community, loneliness and society

[Image by craftivist collective under a CC BY license]

During a stopover from Sydney to London, Maxwell meets Poppy, a young woman; she works as an adultery facilitator for important business-people. She works for a company that provides support and evidences to the people who are cheating on their partners. A great deal of this job consists in travelling around the world from one airport to another to record airport announcements to produce background noise for the clients of her company, to be used when they make phone calls to their partners to justify their nights out as a business trip. Poppy is a typical representative of the precariat. She is a well-educated young person who is obliged to do a degrading, zero-hour job. In a conversation with Maxwell, when asked if she had qualms about the nature of her job, she gives a reply which well epitomizes the condition of the young precariat:

I’ve gone past the stage where I bother about that kind of thing. I got a First in History from Oxford, you know. And do you know what kind of jobs I’ve been doing since? The shittiest of the shitty. The best was PA to the director of a lapdancing club. The worst was… Well, you don’t want to hear about the worst. And that’s without the months of unemployment in between. This job gives me easy money. (Coe 37)

In a later passage Poppy criticizes the older generations that voted Thatcher and kept voting for power parties that proposed neoliberal agendas, turning young people into the precariat and consumer zombies unable to take control of their lives (Coe 37-38).

The sense of loss of control over life is represented at the end of the novel through a postmodern narrative device. The precarious Maxwell Sim decides to take control of his personal life. He has a plane to catch, a plane which will take him to his new life. However, the author of the novel intervenes and tells him that the story (and therefore the novel) is not going to finish as Maxwell wishes, but as he wishes. By denying autonomy to the character, Coe implicitly refers to the bio-power nature of the precarization of labour under neoliberalism. Maxwell Sim, as a precarious individual, is denied autonomy, while the author represents the neoliberal elite which, by taking control over people’s time and personal life, turns the individual into a controllable robot-labourer or consumer zombie.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is one of the first fictional representations of the precariat in British literature. By focusing on solitude, lack of empathy and personality disorders, it effectively points out the consequences of the policies of precarization under neoliberalism. As the phenomenon of precariousness becomes increasingly pervasive in capitalist societies, authors will be compelled to represent and analyse it as one of the dominant phenomena of our contemporary world. Ultimately, representations of the precariat will shed a light on neoliberal societies and on the effect of market values on the lives of individuals. Literary representations of this new rising social class will be also a matter of agency, and will contribute to the voice of a generation often described as lost and disgracefully represented mostly only through the media misrepresentations of consumer zombies.

CITATION: Francesco Di Bernardo, “A Terrible Precariousness,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 February 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.1.03

Dr Francesco Di Bernardo completed his PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought at the University of Sussex. He is currently Associate Tutor at the School of English at Sussex, having previously worked as Research Support Assistant in Sussex’s School of Media, Film and Music. Francesco is currently also reviewer for the LSE Review of Books.

Works Cited:

Bauman, Zygmunt. Work, Consumerism and The New Poor. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1998. Print.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. Print.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bods. Cambridge: Polity, 2003. Print.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005. Print.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Fear. New York (2013): Wiley, 2006. Print.

Breman, Jan. ‘A Bogus Concept?’. New Left Review, 84, November-December (2013). Web.

Bordieu, Pierre, et al. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Celestino, Ascanio. ‘Precario mondo’. Il Manifesto. 9 April 2011. Web.

Coe, Jonathan. The Rotters’ Club. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Coe, Jonathan. The Closed Circle. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Coe, Jonathan. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 1984. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality; V.1, Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Allen Lane, 1979, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Security, territory and population. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Foucault. Michel. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Hardt, Michael., Negri, “Toni” Antonio. Empire. Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 2000. Press.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. ‘Immaterial Labor’. Radical Thought In Italy: A Potential Politics. Eds Paolo Virno and Michael Hardy. University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print. 

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Ed. Brenda Murphy. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2005. Print.

Standing, Guy. ‘Why the precariat is not a “bogus concept”’. openDemocracy. March 2014. Web.

Targhetta, Francesco. Perciò veniamo bene nelle fotografie. Milano. Isbn Edizioni, 2012. Print.

Tarì, Marcello, Vanni, Ilaria. ‘On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives’. The Fibreculture Journal. Web.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961. Print.

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