EXPLOITATION AND PRECARITY

By Werner Seppmann

[This article published in: Ossietsky 23/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://sopos.org/aufsaetze/454fbde809ec2/1.phtml.]


Kurt Beck’s relation with the accelerating social catastrophe (‘lower class debate”) was a superb propagandistic feat. Silently ignoring the increasingly crass social inequality, the SPD chairperson used the category “suspended precarity” from a study of the Friedrich-Ebert foundation on the social and political self-assessment of the German population. He focused attention on a partial problem to cover up the whole drama of the development of social contradictions and divert from their structural causes. Since then, the discussion has largely followed his narrowing of the problem. A conceptual vagueness about the exclusion problematic meets us everywhere in the media. A social segment below the lower class is discussed, not the lower class.

The statements in the study about a “suspended precarity” describe the biographical situation of a part of the population: four to five percent in West Germany and 20 to 25 percent in the East. These are the long-term unemployed, Hartz IV recipients and the “working poor” (five percent of full-employed persons in Germany live below the poverty line) who struggle materially and have also abandoned all hope for improving their living situation.

Sociologists know these findings from all metropolitan capitalist countries. They speak of the “uncoupled” excluded from regular paid work who have resigned to their “fate” and see no chance of a re-integration.

After initial phases of subjective rebellion, tendencies of mental and emotional impoverishment dominate among the excluded. Curiosity about the world beyond their immediate living space experienced as hostile and overbearing dies out. In this situation, most lose courage and strength to creatively influence their own living conditions. The psychic reaction-possibilities of crisis victims narrow. Depression and resignation overwhelm them. Therefore the poor die almost ten years earlier than their well-to-do “fellow citizens.”

The consequences of psychic destabilization processes are civilization regression (from illiteracy to social ruin). For example, whoever refuses to free Hartz IV recipients from textbook costs accepts the consequences. In several of Beck’s commentaries, the socially produced “moral misery” is interpreted as individual failure. As Bert Brecht said: their rottenness is thematicized, not the poverty of the poor.

The situation in the social basements would not be so dramatic if a process of social regression were not underway and lack of social perspectives were not spreading. Social insecurity has generalized; social inequalities have increased. Socially produced fear has become a marked social experience.

Spokespersons in the “lower class debate” avoid this view of the overall social state. They admit social dislocations but are silent about the causes, rage and far-reaching consequences of precarity and re-proletarization processes. The poverty rate that was at 15 percent in 2003 has now risen to 17.3 percent. The zones of social endangerment are even larger. Another 20 percent of the German population live in such insecure conditions and have such trifling incomes that they could always lose their footing.

Social insecurity is not a special “lower class problem.” Fears of falling exist even in the ranks of a once “well-situated” middle class. “Performance individualists” and formerly “satisfied social climbers” (as the groups are called in the study of the Friedrich-Ebert foundation) discover their training and will to performance hardly protect them from social regression. The rationalization waves reach white-collar departments. The number of academically skilled who must accept socially unprotected (and poorly paid) jobs grows.

Contours of a three-piece body of society can be recognized in the present reorganization of the class society. If this trend continues, a well-situated third of the population (including the ruling class and their functioning elites) will be affected and another third with reasonable living and working conditions who are permanently threatened with social regression. The last third is left degraded to an economic mass and hardly has any chances of ever escaping the zones of neediness and existential insecurity.

The putrid odor of a backward social development cannot be ignored any more. “A new proletariat is arising to whom collective normal working conditions and welfare state surrogates for the ups- and-downs- of life are increasingly alien. The long term will be marked by the experience of unemployment, precarious job conditions, `second’ and `third’ labor markets and abrupt poverty phases,” Karl-Heinz Roth predicted 15 years ago.

These trends do not result causally from the disciplining pressures “of the market” on which a social science concentrates that does not speak any more of the tabooed, career-damaging words “class society” and “exploitation.” “Market” and “globalization” also serve as justification facades hiding the owners of the means of production and the great assets of their profit-interests – main driving forces of this reorganization of social conditions.

The exclusion processes are actually the immediate results of radicalized capital exploitation strategies affecting workers more than in the past. There is only place for the hundred-percent efficient in the spruced-up exploitation structures. Older ones and persons with shaky health, all who are not “maneuverable” and “flexible” enough will be removed from the world of work. Those no longer needed for surplus value production will be socially marginalized and handed over to the social treasuries. Job cuts and intensification and “condensation” of work are indirect expressions of capitalist exploitation strategies.

The high-tech areas of present capitalism are also developing in a socially destructive way. A growing number of unsteady jobs in the outsourced areas (mostly with supplier status) face a lower number of newly created jobs. Technical reorganization is mostly connected with social division where past employees become “redundant” and precarious job conditions become normal.

The persons forced out of “normality zones” try not to knuckle under despite all the hopelessness and lack of perspective of their situation. But their survival techniques become more defensive.

Nevertheless persons in the marginal social zones are not completely “superfluous” for the ruling class. They represent a potential threat for the (still) integrated reminding them how deeply they could fall if they are not flexible, ready for performance and cut their coat according to their own cloth.

The social downward adjustment (even below the social subsistence level) happens intentionally. In the last two decades of its struggle against the working class, capital has learned that low-wage zones can be enforced without problem and living conditions restructured without appreciable resistance when the collapse zones are intimidatingly present.