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A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens

Standing, Guy

Bloomsbury, (2014)
ISBN: 978-1-4725-0798-3 (pb)

Reviewed by Ruben Flores, Higher School of Economics, Moscow

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Cover of A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens Steve Fuller has recently reminded the British Sociological Association (BSA) that sociology has historically had a teleological and utopian vocation, at the heart of which lies the task of charting visions of future and better societies (Fuller 2014; BSA 2014). As a discipline, one could retort, sociology has multiple traditions, with the task of envisioning alternative visions of society being just one of the discipline’s multiple facets. Still, one could also agree with Fuller that sociology’s normative streams ought to be rekindled and cultivated: from public philosophy (Bellah 1981) to dialectical thinking (Farr 2008) and critique. After all, as Robert Bellah (1981) once argued , much of what is best in sociology has stemmed from addressing ethical and political questions related to the ‘good society’ and how to get there.

Guy Standing’s A Precariat Charter falls partly within this teleological tradition. Building on previous books, but particularly The Precariat (Standing 2011), Standing reiterates and expands his diagnose of our times, while also outlining the elements of a way forward in the form of a Charter: ‘In short, this book is an attempt to formulate an agenda for the precariat that could be the basis of a political movement, based not on a utilitarian appeal to a majority but on a vision of what constitutes a Good Society.’ (Kindle Locations 106-108).

In his diagnose, Standing charts the rise of job insecurity globally in the context of the ‘disembedded’ phase of capitalism since the 1970s. This is a period where the power of capital has advanced at the expense of the power of labour as a result of policies stemming from what Standing calls a ‘Faustian Bargain’: the re-regulation of the rules of the economic game in favour of capital, and the dismantlement of post-war welfare solidarity, in exchange of the promise of trickle-down ‘prosperity’. Globally, this bargain has set in motion a ‘Great Convergence’ in incomes, which in high-income countries has translated into a decline in real wages, as well as into the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The problem is not that some workers in the global South have higher incomes, but that rights conquered during the 20th century have been eroded globally. One upshot has been the rise of a new class structure across the world; a structure composed of at least six layers: the elites; ‘proficians’, e.g. highly specialised and skilled workers who often free-lance — a category that overlaps with what Robert Reich called ‘symbolic analysts’ (Reich 1992); the salariat (think of state officials); the old proletariat (or ‘old “core” working class’); the precariat; and the underclass.

What defines the precariat is not only precarious labour and job insecurity (a relation of production), but a total of ten features that include: money-only compensations, as opposed to compensations comprising wages and benefits like pensions (a relation of distribution reminiscent of early industrial capitalism); the loss of rights vis-à-vis the private sector and the state; and lack of occupational identity and control over time (zero-hours contracts) coupled with labour alienation and uncertainty (Kindle Locations 383-545). The trend towards precarisation is such that potentially everyone, except the very rich, could end up as part of the precariat at some point in their lives: from migrants to students, from teachers and scholars to care workers. (Oddly enough, the class structure that globalisation has ushered in replicates itself even within management and other professions not normally associated with precarious labour.) These are signs, Standing contends, of a morally bankrupt system that practises socialism for the rich while punishing, infantilising and indeed demonising the working poor; a system where more and more people fall into ‘poverty and precariety traps’, losing rights in the process and thus becoming denizens rather than citizens.

Yet as the world of work becomes more and more defined by precarious conditions, the precariat’s social position becomes potentially pivotal for enacting social change. It is at this point that the book offers the precariat a tool to accomplish precisely this, as the book’s first moment of diagnose and critique gives way to a second moment where Standing outlines proposals to build a better future. Drawing on a long historical tradition that includes Magna Carta, Standing sketches A Precariat Charter of 29 articles, which range from very concrete policy proposals to more general principles for the articulation of progressive social action. The former include the end of ‘workfare’ (Article 20) and the establishment of basic income (Article 25); while more general principles include defending the commons (Article 27) and the revival of deliberative democracy (Article 28). These articles are meant like a unifying agenda in the three inter-connected struggles that the precariat finds itself into, namely the struggles for ‘recognition’, ‘representation’ and ‘redistribution’.

There is much sociologists could take from this book. For Standing writes with what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. Beyond this, the book is also an invitation to develop our ‘economic imagination’, something for which Standing’s book should be praised for. The invitation to re-imagine economic life is something the book has in common with other books like Julie Nelson’s Economics for Humans (2010), and with recent attempts to think a ‘post-Polanyian political economy’ (Holmes 2014). Furthermore, the book provides us with a language to talk about the precariat; as well as an invitation to reclaim a ‘language of progress’ in order to reinvigorate political debate and create a more caring society. However, and these are limitations, in Standing’s account, markets appear as necessarily corrosive. However, we could also ask whether there is room for caring and responsible behaviour within markets and private firms (Nelson 2010); for private enterprise is not tantamount to greed and philistinism, just as public ownership is not identical to humanism and care. As recent work in economic sociology suggests (Reich 2014), market forces can be met in very different ways in different backgrounds: normative traditions and ethical aspirations shape how actors deal with market forces.

As Standing argues in the Introduction, ‘These are momentous times, when we are in the midst of a Global Transformation, when a new progressive vision of the Good Society is struggling to take shape.’ (Kindle Locations 121-122). Anybody interested in understanding these times and contributing to this struggle could benefit from reading this book. This readership includes activists, scholars, opposition parties, NGOs, social movements, public intellectuals, public servants, policy makers, and the general public, but especially the precariat, whose historic task (if you will) is to ‘seek to abolish itself’ through collective action (Kindle Location 576). In this task, the precariat could benefit from allies, which are likely to be found among progressive people from all classes. A Precariat Charter deserves, in sum, a wider readership. An open access edition, incidentally, could facilitate the book’s circulation while also keeping with article 27 of Standing’s charter — contributing to expanding the digital commons.


BSA (2014) Steve Fuller: ‘Sociology must steer our society towards a utopia’ in Network. Magazine of the British Sociological Association, Summer, p. 16–17.

BELLAH, R (1981) ‘The ethical aims of social inquiry’ The Teachers College Record, 83(1), p. 1-18.

FARR, A (2008) The Task of Dialectical Thinking in the Age of One-Dimensionality. Human Studies, Vol 31, Issue 2, p. 233-239.

FULLER, S (2014) BSA Annual Conference 2014 Keynote Speaker, Steve Fuller: Sociology as the Science of Human Uplift. Video:

HOLMES, C (2014) ‘Introduction: A Post-Polanyian Political Economy for Our Times’, Economy and Society, Vol 43, Issue 4, p. 525–40.

NELSON, J (2010) Economics for humans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

REICH, A (2014) ‘Contradictions in the Commodification of Hospital Care’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol 119, Issue 6, p. 1576–1628.

REICH, R (1992) The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism, New York: Vintage.

STANDING, G (2011) The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury.