jacobito (jacobito) wrote,

precarity in the usa

i fuckin love this banner from estrecho/madiaq indymedia. and i've been wondering lately if precarity is a useful concept in the unites states as an organizing referent, a theoretical stimulus and a possible common ground between students, flexible labor, and undocumented immigrants.

What is Precarity?

Precarity explained to kids (a medley)
Cut, Pasted and Articulated (somewhat) by Aviv Kruglanski

What does an immigrant worker and a downwardly mobile twenty-something have in common?

Pre-car-i-ous \pri-'kar-e-as\ adj [L precarius obtained by entreaty, uncertain—more at PRAYER] (1646)
1: depending on the will or pleasure of another
2: dependent on uncertain premises: DUBIOUS
3 a: dependent on chance circumstances. Unknown conditions, or uncertain develpoments
b: charactarized by a lack of security or stability that threatens with danger

Lack of stability. Uncertainty regarding one's future and the fear of that very uncertainty. Our precarity is felt in all aspects of our lives: work, housing, health, emotions, human relations.

Precarity has to do with the ways we work and how life itself has been transforming with the new global economy; the new kinds of jobs it offers, the new ways of production that come associated with these jobs.

Perhaps all this precarity is not new. What is new though is the use of this concept to create a common understanding for people to organize around. For many people it no longer makes sense to organize around their work situation. Our work is constantly changing, it is never really defined. At the same time an interesting possibility opens up to organize/resist/struggle (something like that) or maybe disobey around the different aspects of life: housing, health, emotions, human relations, food, leisure.

Because our work, housing, health, emotions and relations are on constantly shifting grounds.

Because we feel alone in our situations.

Because work and life have oozed into each other to the point that one cannot be distinguished from the other.

Are we living a life of total leisure or of 24-7 production?

The focus of this article is two fold. First it will take a guided tour around the precarity discourse running rampant in Europe at the moment. Then it will briefly describe some of the different spheres where new forms of action are starting to emmerge. Confronted with biolabour and bioexploitation, active-awake-disobedient networking is popping up in all aspects of life, in every nanomoment.

The branded individual is alone in a tumultuous sea of self promotion and competition. He has to protect his territory, always looking out for himself. Network. Advance. Be on the lookout. Work is never constant. Promised mobility is an ever shifting panorama. It’s exciting, in a way when you are feeling strong, but it’s exhausting for most in the long run. You have to invent yourself and then protect and promote your invention. Whether you work at the mall (but have other dreams) or whether you are a free lance web designer.

The fact that you invent yourself– the things you do to survive, the things you do to give your life meaning, the things you do to escape– your failures are yours and yours alone. They are a failure of your invention, of your capacities, of your creativity, you have only yourself to blame. And you never meet anyone else in your exact situation– all situations differ, but they are all precarious.

Human relations
Smiling is working– where does my real smile begin? Whether your friendlyness is tainted by the shade of networking, or shaded by “Hello, how are we today? my name is Rob and i'll be your server.” Survival comes first.

“Flex Workers”... loosely describes the social reality of millions of service and information workers working under non-standard day, weekly and monthly schedules, without secure tenure nor social benefits.

-The Cognitariat Rises Across Neuropa: intermittent labor, cognitive work and the dark side of EU-style human capital by Laser Posse Sapienza Pirata Andrea Capocci, Antonio Conti, Alberto De Nicola, Margherita Emiletti, Serena Fredda, Davide Sacco www.greenpeppermagazine.org

Nowadays – in clear contrast to the late 1970's sensibility of 'work refusal' – the term 'career' has absolutely no meaning for the flexworking subject. The job biography of the average flex worker tends to look more like a patchwork assembled through the assumption of individual risk, and more closely resembles the figure of the “entrepreneur” than that of the classical “worker”.

-Precarious Lexicon by Alex Foti www.greenpeppermagazine.org)

What did having a job mean to our parents? It meant access to the prime mode of socialization. Holding a job all your life was more than the garantee of survival for you and your family. Fundamentally, a job was the instrument for integration and social normalization.

What does jumping from one crap job to another for years on end (until some of us somehow manage to "establish" ourselves), mean to us today? It's not the main way we socialize, that's for sure. Our jobs, basically, are instruments we use to obtain the cash we need in order to live and socialize, with the least humiliation possible. Why deny it?! Today, when someone talks about looking for a job, what they really mean to say is: “I need money".

-Yomango action to Mangueting Guerilla, or how to reach the transition from Yomango as direct action to a practice subverting the precarized metropolitan life, a theoretical document of the new "Yomango Ant Comando".

… production relies more than ever on immaterial labour. Education, creativity, information and social relations become a primary economic resource in postindustrial economies.

...the current and ever-changing dynamic of globalised immaterial production requires that workers talk and think as much as possible – so as to optimise and align production toward the requisites of continuous innovation..."

-The Cognitariat rises across Neuropa: intermittent labor, cognitive work and the dark side of EU-style human capital, (ibid), www.greenpeppermagazine.org

this process of private appropriation of a creative communality occurs during the time at work, and, increasingly, thanks to cellphones, ubiquitous connectivity and sheer colonization of mindspace, during the time off work (if any is left).
-Precarious Lexicon by Alex Foti www.greenpeppermagazine.org

You are doing some work for money, but you have your dream project on the side, a hobby a passion. Precarity is the flipside of individualism and self expression. The fact that the precarious and the entrepreneur are related is not surprising. Each one of us defines our own precariousness. Our precarity is the flipside of the branded me Inc, as discussed in No Logo. Pitted against each other as if we were competing brands. We remain isolated, atomized.

The following sections describe antagonistic networks which break through this isolation. Make no mistake though, these projects avoid the old school dychotomy of individualism vs. collectivity. You could say that creating networks of resistance is like creating a branded individual, a Me Incorporated, defining herself as Me-. These collaborations have to do with a new commons we create from the vantage point of our differences.


Linea 0 was a massive hopping of the metro done in Barcelona as part of a day of action. Presentations were held inside the metro cars that explained to the passangers different methods of leaving the metro stalls open for further hopping by subsequent passengers. Yomango'ed chocolate was handed out. The precarious and their practices were racuossally celebrated.

The precarious do not demand free public transportation or housing. As activists, we make visible the fact that they are already free. We give legitimacy to hopping the metro stalls and squatting appartments by doing it visibly and by creating the spaces for communication betweeen people who practice this gratuity.

As part of a longer term project, squatters in Barcelona have openned a squatting agency. A squatting agency is sort of like a real estate agency– but no money is exchanged.

The squatting agency works on four axis’: legal information and support,
documentation and history of the squatting movement, gentrification and real estate violence, communication. The main concept behind the project is the vulgarization of squatting. The idea is to present squatting to the public at large as just a housing option that responds to many peoples needs – not as an identity or an aesthetic. Squatting, like other forms of social disobedience, suffers from a contradictory image where it is percieved either as heroic self sacrifice by do-gooder hippies or as lazy violent punk rockers who smell bad. Neither one of these identities are accessible. Neither one represents the reality of squatting in Barcelona, a city that boasts around 2000 “okupas” and many more invisible squatters. (Some in Barcelona make the destinction between “okupar” with 'k', squatting visibly as a form of political action and “ocupar” with 'c' , people who squatt descretely).

Squatting is a high skill hobby. It involves the de-professionalization of many skills. As a squatter you need to be an electrician, a plumber, a burglar, a club manager and a lawyer. One of the main activities of the squatting agency is pooling all the information needed to hook up to services such as water and electricity and to defend yourself in court.

Food, Clothing, Leisure

Yomango is not a collective formed by individuals who dedicate their time to shoplifting from multi-national corporations. First, it is not a collective. Second, there are no Yomango Individuals. Yomango is everywhere, but it is hard to grasp. So how can the followers of Yomango get arrested? You don't “follow” Yomango. Yomango happens. Nonetheless it is true that when Yomango occurs certain physical entities (such as security personnel) do what they can to avoid it. This just makes visible the person who is enjoying a Yomango moment. This person, at that very moment, may be perceived as a thief but nothing is further from the truth.

Yomango is a gesture which provides you with everything advertizing promises– which the reality of capitalsim prevents you from having: the prospect of adventure, self fulfillment, creativity, sharing, community. Yomango is a transformative act of magic. It does not recognize the laws of physics nor does it acknowledge definitions such as legal or illegal. It does not recognize borders or security arcs. Yomango liberates objects and liberates your desires. It liberates your desire trapped in objects trapped inside large shopping malls. The same place where you yourself are trapped. Yomango is a pact between co-prisoners.

…"their styles are ugly", says P. Bannister, CEO of Yomango, of globalized clothing giants such as Gap and Zara, "but that's beside the point. What's important is to note is that all that stuff is for free. Why? Because we're smart, because there are lots of us, and because we are working on our own terrain.”

- www.yomango.net

What does P. Bannister mean when he says "we are working on our terrain"? The mall, the chainstore or any other privatized public space, are all precarious turf. Most of the people who make these places run are Yomango people. They are people on part time or temporary contracts– people who'd rather be doing something else. The things sold in these stores are based on our styles and our ideas. The only way the whole machine still works is with the menace of violence.

These conceptual tools have in common the idea of gratuity.Taking money out of the picture is a potent way to surf precarity. And “surfing” it is.

Living for free is practically illegal. These Yomango practices do not stabalize ones life. These are precarious practices designed to cope with precarity. They don't provide you with the assurance of food, housing, healthcare, leisure or transporation in the future. There are two things these practices do hope to stabalize. The first is human relations, these practices are a human safety net for precarity acrobats. The other is a conceptual safety net based on knowledge and skills. They create a commons for people who do strange, illegal, things.


We are convinced that at the core of the process of neoliberal accumulation lies flexible and contingent labor done by the young, females, migrants and casualized employees. They are in crucial reproductive and distribution services as well as the knowledge, culture, and media industries that provide the raw material on which the system functions: information. We call ourselves PRECOG because we embody the PRECARIAT, working in retail and services, and the COGNITARIAT of media and education industries. We are the producers of neoliberal wealth, we are the creators of knowledge, style and culture enclosured and appropriated by monopoly power.

There is a World of Rights to Fight for:Access to Housing, Loving, Hacking!


The 1st of May is the traditional workers holiday, a typical event for trade union demos or parades. But these days many people don't get the day off. The Euro-Mayday is a growing movement for reclaiming the 1st of May as a moment of visibility for the precarious in their multiple shades and practices. Mayday is a space for us to meet from the vantage point of our differences. Today a lot of people are not organized by trade unions: either because they don't have a stable workplace or they have a precarious contract and are under the constant threat of losing their jobs. Many simply don't identify with the work-centered discourse or the rigid hierarchical structures that even the most grassroots radical unions hold on to.

We have chosen the MayDay parade to be propagated and subvertised via independent omnimedia (print, spray, radio, video, net, satellite etc), as a libertarian and multi-identity format featuring dozens of sound trucks, carnival and allegorical wagons, vans, carts and bicycles with kids and grown-ups. Jugglers of jobs and contorsionists of flexibility, all together expressing cheerful anger against the exclusion of a whole generation, and soon the rest of society, from social rights with guarantees of collective self-defense.


With its demand for flexsecurity the precarious Mayday Parade might seem like a standard demo with demands we as producers make on our exploiting employers. But it is not only that– the parade is an invitation. Its purpose is to send out a message that the precarious all over Europe are not alone in their situations. The different techniques to survive and self fulfill are shared by many, they are real for people to access despite their legal legitimacy.

Fashion design
Serpica Naro – A Play By Play

Milan: Fashion week, 2005. Milan is a big fashion industry town. Many find temporary and part time work during fashion week.

Pergola Social Center: Groups centered around the social center create a fake fashion designer.

Name: Serpica Naro. An anagram for 'San Precario', the patron saint of the precarious. (Previosly the saint starred in a graphic campaign and a series of direct actions www.sanprecario.info.)

A portfolio is designed for Naro and a a website is created (www.serpicanaro.com).The portfolio is presented to the fashion week organization and Serpica Naro is selected to participate as part of the official program.

Serpica Naro is your typical high-end designer that reapropriates the styles and discourse of counter-culture and social movements for some street-cred. Some of her slogans include “We are the new class!” and “Why save the world when you can design it!” Also created is an “official” web sight (www.settimanadellamoda.it) reporting on the younger generation of fashion designers participating in the Milan fashion week. Among them is Serpica Naro. On the site journalists can register to recieve news of different events taking place throughout fashion week.

By the time fashion week arrived the activists were completely “outraged” by Serpica’s reapropriation of their styles and ideas. Throughout the week they organized actions and demonstrations proclaiming that the fashion-world and its week generate precarity with the kinds of jobs it produces and that it steals the styles and culture of the precarious. Collaborating with precarious workers labouring in a theater where an important fashion show took place, the activists were able to infiltrate the show, drop banners, distribute flyers and seize the runway.

After a discussion on the radio regarding Serpica Naro, Serpica came out with a public statement that blamed the communists for halting progress in Italy. The activists response was that they would block the Serpica Naro fashion show, forbidding it to take place. A day before the show Nadja Fortuna, fictional Serpica's fictional press cordinator, recieved a phone call from the police warning her that local social movements planned to interfere with her show.

Serpica’s Saturday show was the last one schedualed, closing the whole week. Back at Pergola, the social center where the whole scheme was drempt up, the activists divided into two groups: the fashion crowd (models and designers) and the demonstrators. The show was to take place in a big tent located on a bridge close to Pergola.

Three police vans, riot cops and ten plainclothes policemen waited at the base of the bridge. The designers needed to get to the tent to rehearse. The cops laughed as the designers approached- not to be fooled, they recognized the “designers” as the activists from Pergola. The activists laughed as well, as they were soon able to produce papers proving that it was they who had actually organized the Serpica show. The commanders of the plain cloths police men smirked and congratulated the activists on their brilliant prank. The riot cops, on the other hand, were not amused.

An onsite press conference with the media explained the whole thing:

Serpica Naro does not exist. Serpica Naro is to be launched as a meta-brand which will encompase many types of self produced precarious fashion and accessories. The work process will be based on concepts such as “open-source” and “copyleft”, never before applied to garment design. The Serpica Naro website will be converted into a hub for independent designers to communicate and for the publishing of designs related to political action. Like an indymedia for cloths.

A fashion show was held where independent home-based designers presented their work. Serpica presented clothing made for daily survival of precarious working conditions: reversible pajamas that convert into work cloths, wedding dresses that help illegal immigrants get residency. Yomango fashion, made up of clothes with many hidden pockets, featured a model pulling out more and more and more chocolate.

The following day the Serpica Naro story came out in many newspapers, tv and stations and websites. Press continues to this day. Designers and activists are still talking and collaborating in order to give continuity to the project.

Some see the discussions around precarity as a new class, an update to out of date
class-dialectics. These people focus their activity around labour and work-conditions. Others see it as a psychological phenomena which goes across class and ethnic background, a logic which affects all aspects of current society. The preparations for this year’s Euro-MayDay involves heavy debate around these themes. Do we need concensus or are some basic working assumptions enough? Does the precarity discussion go beyond the practice of analyising new trends in politics and economics? Is this whole thing just too damn abstract? Regardless there are precarity practices responding to real needs and desires. The connection between service and culture economies in the “developed””wealthy”world, and the labour and manufacturing of the other distant parts of the world are hard to make. Is there a logic that can put us all on the same level? Is there a common basis for conversation? Are we doomed forever to the patronizing logic of “solidarity” with the poor?

People around Europe are re-defining the things they do to survive into an articulated resistance by remodeling daily practices of survival into spaces of congregation and communication. Precarity means activism can't be an extra-curricular activity we do once we are off work. Precarity means we don't have time. When we say “we are all precarious (…immigrants, mall-workers, freelancers, waiters, squatters….)” we are simply articulating a common point of encounter out of which to take action.

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