Precarity and Dividuality in Flexible Capitalism

Contemporary critical diagnoses of the present often draw on the notion of precarity to denote a somehow destabilized general condition of existence for people in present societies.

Dennis Eversberg (Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena)

In many versions, as in the widely known one advanced by the late Robert Castel, precarity is portrayed as a “return of insecurity”, effected by the loss of mechanisms of social protection that had been installed as the result of long struggles waged by the labour movements in the 20th century. 

In this post, I want to revise this common wisdom in two respects. Firstly, I want to go back to the original meaning of the word ‘precarious’ to argue that the process is poorly understood if it is not perceived of as referring to a specific temporality, a relationship to the future, rather than an unspecific ‘brittleness’ of a situation, and that in this sense it does not stand for a ‘return’, but rather for the emergence of something new. Secondly, I want to specify what this new element is by tracing the history of three successive regimes of capitalist subjectivity production – namely, the liberal capitalist, organized capitalist, and flexible capitalist regimes – to reconstruct the contemporary subjective dynamic of dividualization as an underlying condition that precarity in its contemporary form is arguably a symptom of.

What does ‘precarity’ originally mean?

In the sociological literature, the term ‘precarity’ is commonly used as a synonym for ‘fragile’ or ‘unstable’, ‘precarious work’ is normally work under unsteady, fluctuating conditions, most often in terms of contractual types of employment (fixed-term contracts, agency work, zero hours contracts, etc.). However, the Latin verb precari that the word is derived from is originally quite a bit more specific in its meaning: It means ‘to beg’ or ‘to pray’, or in a wider sense: To appeal to a higher authority. Precaria/-us, accordingly, refers to 'that which is obtained by prayer' or by appeal to a higher authority. The strong association here is one of a lack of sovereignty over one's own fate: Precarity, thus understood, is the situation of those who can only pray that they will get by tomorrow. The Latin origin of the word points us to what is at the very heart of the concept, namely the problematic relation to the future it indicates: Precarity is the dependency on a higher power’s mercy for one’s future, and precarization denotes the loss of grasp on a future that once seemed under control.

But if it is the loss of a future that we are presently talking about, then, I would argue, it is inappropriate to define it as 'the return of insecurity'1. This is because speaking of a 'return' makes to unjustified shortcuts: For one thing, it implicitly equates contemporary precarity with the collective misery of 19th century proletarians (as the factor that had previously stabilized the future can hardly be anything other than the 20th century welfare state that had helped overcome that condition), and for another, it evokes the (wrong) idea that capitalism today is reverting2 to what it was back then. Any historian will agree that, beyond at best a few superficial similarities, such a portrayal of current events is inaccurate and a gross simplification. The situation of precarized workers in European societies today is very different from that of 19th century proletarians in almost every respect, most notably including a) the level of technological development and societal wealth that these processes are occurring at, and b) the horizons of collective experience shared by the respective generations.

At this point, we can conclude two things: (1) 21st century precarity is not a 'return' of something known from earlier times, but a new phenomenon, and (2) understanding what it is and how it came about  requires an analysis of the history of capitalist regimes in both their objective and subjective dimensions.

The dialectics of historical capitalist regimes in Western Europe

The notion of 'growth regime', originating in French regulation theory, is used to describe temporarily stable constellations of institutional arrangements that stabilize a social setting conducive to a specific mode of economic activity that will ensure rising profits to capital. It implies that each such growth regime is not only a mode of producing goods and services, but also a mode of production of one or more types of 'growth subject': The structural compulsion to grow demands that certain skills and attitudes that favor rising production, sales and political stability be constantly fostered and made more efficiently amenable to being integrated into the productive circuits of the regime.

If we look at it this way, regulation theory’s assumption that growth regimes have inherent economic limits – that their stable functioning for a prolonged period is bound to gradually chip away at the foundations they rest on, ending up in a crisis out of which a new formation must emerge – can be expanded, since any economic crisis may equally well be understood as a subjective crisis: It sets in when the one-sided way that people’s skills, capacities, desires – in short, their subjectivity – is taken to task within the capitalist formation becomes unbearable for them. Forms of passive or active resistance will ensue, and when these turn into a political factor, they contribute to the regime’s destabilization and eventual demise. In this sense, precarity as we know it today may be seen as a symptom of the aggravating subjective crisis of flexible capitalism. To illustrate what that means, let me give a brief account of the subjective history of Western European capitalism since the 19th century.

a) Liberal capitalism: Collectivizing individuation

The latter half of the 19th century was a phase of rapid industrialization, in which the number of workers in industry in European countries rose at a rapid pace. Most of the time, these 'free' wage workers and their families had only recently been separated from the land as their means of subsistence, and their worldviews and frames of mind remained strongly shaped by the dense networks and collectivities of rural social relations. When they entered the factories, however, they were subjected to the labour contract as an individuating social technology. Its twin operations of holding workers personally and non-transferably responsible for their duties and allowing them agency in the market by virtue of the money paid as a wage, both addressed the worker as an individual and, at the same time, forced her to act as one. Meanwhile, factory organization relied primarily on technologies designed to discipline workers, which were no less individuating, serving to separate workers from each other and subject each one separately to coercive force. Since industrially produced goods were not intended for consumption by those making them and labour was abundant, there was no reason to organize production so that workers' health and motivation would be preserved, and wages appeared as a cost factor only. The result was a collective situation of poverty, bad working conditions and a largely disenfranchised status – in short: proletarianization.

The key resource they could draw on to overcome their misery was the collective ethic of mutual dependency3 that persisted from their rural and agrarian origins, which they posited against the de-collectivizing logic of the labour contract and its adverse effects. This ethic of collectivity was what enabled the ‘making of the working class’4 as a ‘learning process’ that led to the eventual emergence of powerful labour movements. Thus, in a dialectical historical movement, the individuating structural logic of liberal capitalism sparked the collective formation of the working class, and its collective resistance marked the subjective limit of the liberal-capitalist regime. Throughout the turmoil of the following half-century, this collective struggle was one of the driving forces for what was to become the organized capitalist regime in the decades after World War II.

b) Organized capitalism: Individualizing collectivization

Organized capitalism brought the integration of the working class as full citizens into capitalist society. The key vehicle for this integration was what Robert Castel has termed 'social property': Institutionalized guarantees for social benefits and collective insurances against the risks of life. The technologies providing social property exerted a collectivizing effect on workers' subjectivities: Social insurance was technically based on the discovery of risk as a genuinely social concept that could only be calculated and managed collectively, at the level of populations. In Germany, even before World War I, social insurance had expanded to such an extent as to cover a majority of society, including white-collar workers, widows and orphans. The interwar period saw further technologies of institutional collectivization appear, new risks were covered, social assistance extended, further groups were included.

In Germany and some other European countries, this collectivized mode of subjectivation was particularly deeply entrenched by the institution of the occupation. Industrial labour was standardized in terms of occupations – certified bundles of skills acquired during an apprenticeship – and occupation was made the structuring category of collective agreements, so that each worker was personally protected against capitalist domination by virtue of the collective. The rights she enjoyed were not, in principle, thought of as her 'property', but accrued to her as a member of the occupational collective.

Of course, the most striking feature of organised capitalism was the high degree of integration and interconnectedness of large firms. They too had a stake in collectivization. The Fordist link between standardized mass production and standardized mass consumption made the collectivizing logic the catalyst of a temporarily stable high-growth regime. It enabled a unique tradeoff between workers' interest in high wages and capital's interest in high and stable demand. This nexus drew in so large a part of the population that the status of wage earner was widely generalized to create the relatively homogeneous fabric of a wage society. Of course, the counterpart to the Fordist factory was the (nuclear) family, in which the production and maintenance of workers' labour power was to be equally effectively organized – a task imposed without further ado on women. As a result, the task profile and social identity of 'housewife and mother' became subject to a similar degree of standardization as the (predominantly) male occupations.

This dynamic of structural collectivization gave rise to its own countertendencies: The institutionalization of structural collectivity simultaneously allowed people to actively de-collectivize themselves in that it allowed them to be, to a constantly increasing degree, subjects who were free to engage in all sorts of leisurely and voluntary social and personal activities. Wages covered more than just the basic necessities of life, and the progressive reduction of working hours freed up time for things like sports, vacations, 'hobbies' and such, enabling an 'autonomous', non-standardized fashioning of ‘lifestyles’. The sense of collectivity in people's everyday self-understandings was thus gradually weakened, while that of being a singular and unique person took more and more hold.

The subjective crisis set in when the Fordist mode of organizing production proved too rigid and inflexible to cater to the diversified tastes. True, economic factors like the end of the gold standard and the Bretton Woods system as well as the subsequent 'oil shocks' certainly did theirs to end the Fordist constellation. But parallel to this ran the gradual crumbling of organized capitalism’s mental infastructure5. The late 1960s marked the becoming apparent of a world of unrest that had been gestating in the minds and the daily lives of people in different sectors of Fordist society. At its root was the experience of a disjunction between multiplying opportunities in the private domain and the strict norms, standards and hierarchies that structured the institutional side of society. In the late 1960s, this growing discrepancy between the desire for autonomy and a prescribed monotonous future sparked an insurgency against that future. Individually, growing numbers of young people sought to flee the prescribed life through higher education or, as a woman, by entering the labour market. And collectively, apprentices, students, and the discontented youth in general, started to organize and experiment with alternative lifestyles in the numerous social movements that now sprang up. And series of wildcat strikes, often initiated by migrant workers, indicated similar discontent among the lower ranks of those already integrated into Fordist working life. Years before the 'oil shock', these forms of unrest signalled the subjective limits of organized capitalism.

c) Flexible capitalism: Dividualization

What has happened since then remains fiercely debated. My own interpretation is this: Organized capitalism has made way for the rise of a flexible capitalist growth regime, which relies on further optimizing the relation between inputs and outputs by constantly breaking down all inputs into ever smaller units in order to eliminate any and all forms of deadweight and drag in productive processes. This goes for the extraction of natural resources as well as for the liberalization of financial markets, but, most pertinently, it also concerns the commodity of labour power. The resulting logic, which can be seen to underlie the restructuring of modes of subjectivation in the most advanced capitalist societies, is that of what I call dividualization. It is not simply a scheme imposed by capital, but it could indeed only be successful because people actively pursued it as means of emancipation: The structural de-collectivization that people had initially fought for with individualist intentions has turned on them as a dynamic that now ends up fragmenting the individual herself. This dynamic has several dimensions, of which two are specifically important for the present argument:

  • The first is the dimension of competence: The occupation, which now increasingly appears as too clumsy and inflexible to ensure an efficient allocation of labour, is superseded by the model of competence. The abilities, aptitudes and attitudes that had formerly been tied together in a relatively fixed occupational profile have been unbundled, and firms increasingly seek to buy only highly specific sets of competences for narrowly defined periods as cheap as possible. In the emerging ‘flexibilised’ high-turnover labour markets, owners of labour power must be able to navigate unstable conditions by always having the right combination of assets in their 'portfolio'. Initially pioneered by fractions of the cultural and artistic elites, the 'portfolio'-based strategies of competitive self-marketing have since 'trickled down' into broader segments of the labour market and, in a general climate of harsher competition for fewer and more precarious jobs, mutated from an initially freely chosen lifestyle into an external imposition enforced through modified personnel management techniques and ‘activating’ labour market policies.

  • The second dimension is the spatio-temporal: Flexibilized modes of firm organization and destandardized employment have weakened the ties between firms and workers, while microelectronics, the internet and mobile communications have enabled a new level of short-term demand-oriented coordination of work processes. Thus, workers can now also be disassembled in space and time, their competences can be flexibly allocated and reallocated as needed. The individual thus ceases to be the basic unit of trade in labour power, as it becomes possible to buy and sell only parts of the person for the exact time and according to the exact demands they are needed for, reducing friction and 'unnecessary' cost.

These changes mark a decisive rupture with the collectivizing logic of organized capitalism and the installation of dividualization as the structural subjectivation logic of flexible capitalism. The mode of integrating workers into production that has now become possible is neither primarily disciplinary (as in liberal capitalism) nor built on the logic of insurance (as in organized capitalism), but enabled by technologies of control (Deleuze). Drawing on 'digital doubles' of their ‘competence profiles’, people's inner potentials can now be precisely allocated in space and time in the matrix of open environments of control, and permanently surveyed in their optimal use.

Conclusion: Not a return, but something new

Evidently, this last account has to remain fragmentary for the time being, as it's too early to say for sure what forms of oppositional life-worldly subjectivation will eventually topple the dividualizing regime of flexible capitalism. In any case, what the narrative presented above has hopefully shown is that the new world of structural dividualization described in the last section, which is at the root of the current advance of precarity as a social condition, cannot and should not be seen as a mere ‘return’ of phenomena that we purportedly know from the era of flexible capitalism. As we have seen, the horizon of experience of contemporary precarious workers is not shaped by collective misery and inherited collective orientations that provide a resource of solidarity, but rather by fragmented situations and the feeling of loss of any potential for solidarity. Instead of clinging to the superficial similarities in current phenomena to the otherwise completely different things that happened in the past, we are better advised to closely scrutinize the so far poorly understood dynamics of dividualization in order to identify the real forces that may eventually be found to overcome them.



1. Dörre, Klaus (2010): Social Classes in the Process of Capitalist Landnahme - On the Relevance of Secondary Exploitation

2. Schramm, Sandford F. (2015): The Return of Ordinary Capitalism - Neoliberalism, Precarity, Occupy

3. Wikipedia: Moral Economy

4. Thompson, E.P. (1963): The Making of the English Working Class

5. Welzer, Harald (2011): Mental Infrastructures - How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls


Prework would like to thank the authors for their contribution to this blog. The views expressed however are those solely by the authors.