Complex civilisations & the precariat

This end of year Guardian article relates Joseph Tainter’s 1988 analysis of how increasingly complex societies lead to diminishing returns that precipitate collapse. The writer, who talked to Tainter, sees that the current phenomena of populism in 2016 exemplified by the Brexit vote and the success of Trump in winning election to the most powerful leadership position on earth, can be seen as the revolt against complexity. The the Leave and Trump voters were motivated by an emotional yearning for simpler times when returns were still growing to the benefit of the population at large.

Another analysis by Guy Standing, a SOAS academic, relates the rise of populism to the precariat’s anxieties. He coined this term to describe the hugely expanded socia class of indebted workers who have no permanent security in their lives and who live precariously unlike those with secure employment (the salariat). While the precariat fails to advance, the financial and corporate elites garner most of the benefits of increasing wealth and social injustice increases.

Standing sets out three categories of precariat:

 “everywhere the precariat is split into three factions, each suffering from feelings of relative deprivation, with respect to others and to time.

1. The first faction consists of those who have fallen from old working-class communities or families. They feel they do not have what their parents or peers had. They may be called atavists, since they look backwards, feeling deprived of a real or imagined past. Not having much education, they listen to populist sirens who play on their fears and blame “the other” – migrants, refugees, foreigners, or some other group easily demonized. The atavists supported Brexit and have flocked to the far right everywhere. They will continue to go that way until a new progressive politics reaches out to them.

2. The second group are nostalgics. These consist of migrants and beleaguered minorities, who feel deprived of a present time, a home, a belonging. Recognizing their supplicant status, mostly they keep their heads down politically. But occasionally the pressures become too great and they explode in days of rage. It would be churlish to blame them.

3. The third faction is what I call progressives, since they feel deprived of a lost future. It consists of people who go to college, promised by their parents, teachers and politicians that this will grant them a career. They soon realize they were sold a lottery ticket and come out without a future and with plenty of debt. This faction is dangerous in a more positive way. They are unlikely to support populists. But they also reject old conservative or social democratic political parties. Intuitively, they are looking for a new politics of paradise, which they do not see in the old political spectrum or in such bodies as trade unions.

For a while, the progressives opted out of mainstream politics, reflected in declining voter turnouts and so on. However, this has been changing since 2011, albeit not by enough to stop the UK voting to leave the European Union and the US from electing Donald Trump. They have begun to define the future again, drawing energy from the need to revive the great trinity of the Enlightenment –liberté, egalité and fraternité.”

This is the Wikipedia entry on the Precariat.

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