During the giddy Noughties years before the Great Crash, I was a twenty-something graduate with a first-class degree, living in London. Most of my peers jumped straight from university into the City or management consulting, and had put down deposits on then still-affordable London flats by the time we were in our mid-twenties. I, on the other hand, was an early adopter of economic insecurity.
At the time, precarious work felt playful and varied, like something you could always reverse later. I skipped between temp and short-term employments, lived hand-to-mouth and spent my energy on hipster art projects, experimental writing and fiddling about on the then still-nascent internet. It was fun and interesting. I wrote unreadable novels and was permanently skint. And, over time, I watched my resources and lifestyle diverge ever more sharply from those enjoyed by my university friends.
Much has been written in the last week about how the civil war within the modern Labour Party is a fight between working-class and bourgeois factions. Labour has been stolen, in this view, by a gaggle of North London poshos for whom Left-wing views are as obligatory as a Daunt Books cotton tote and something “ethnic” decorating the living-room wall.
Writing in UnHerd, veteran Labour campaigner and unionist Paul Embery recently blamed this on the party’s turn against the cultural values and priorities of the “traditional working-class base”: values that, in his view, include “communitarian impulse, traditional values, desire for belonging and sense of national pride”.
But while the tension between the woke Left and the “traditional” one is real, well-documented and hitting Labour hard, the conflict between Islington and Darlington is not the whole picture. For if there’s one thing my lucky escape from flatshares and gig-work taught me, it’s that a key line of battle in the 21st-century class wars is not guacamole versus mushy peas. Rather, it’s how liquid someone’s life and working conditions are.
These days, my life is the old-fashioned illiquid bourgeois package: a marriage, a family, a home. But my lucky escape from temporary housing, temporary jobs and so on only came about because I married someone who’d managed a long enough stint in the corporate salt-mines to buy a home. Others have not been so fortunate: ONS data in 2017 showed that people aged 35 to 44, my cohort, are three times more likely to be renting than 20 years ago.
In the years since I was pioneering millennial precarity, the balloon of home-ownership has gone on rising; the average house deposit is now 72% of an individual’s gross salary, or 137% in London. That blessed state now eludes not just feckless bohos like me but many who are striving as hard as they can to catch it — and still falling back. Previously, I’ve called this group an “Everywhere precariat”: the also-rans emerging from a higher education machine that now processes 50% of young people, before disgorging them into a shrinking job market with £30,000-£60,000 of debt, elite values and expectations of a middle-class lifestyle.
Those in this precariat who don’t score an inheritance, win the cryptocurrency lottery or otherwise roll a lucky six in the resources casino are left clutching their tickets for a middle-class party bus that seems to have departed without them. The US blogger Venkatesh Rao describes this lifestyle as “premium mediocre”: a kind of performance of bourgeois tastes and lifestyle, just about funded by hand-to-mouth spending.
For Rao, an increasingly critical class distinction here is whether or not you work “above the API” — a reference to the “application programming interface”, a software intermediary that allows two programmes to talk to one another. In other words, whether you issue commands to the digital networks that shape our lives, or whether they issue commands to you.
To illustrate, think about the difference between a freelance graphic designer and an Amazon warehouse worker. One operates Photoshop for a living: that is, “above the API” in Rao’s terms, telling a computer what to do. In contrast, the warehouse worker is monitored throughout the day, has their pick rate tracked and is “operated” by AI-powered performance optimisation algorithms — in other words: below the API.
But in terms of income, security, and prospects, there may be very little to distinguish them. As James Bloodworth detailed in Hired, warehouse operatives often compete through gangmaster-style agencies for insecure, unpredictable work with low-skilled migrants from all over the world. And they do so in a legislative environment that offers very few employment protections. Similarly, graphic designers compete through websites such as PeoplePerHour, against other designers from all over the world, in an environment that offers very few employment protections.
And such precarious work is increasingly normal, especially for young people. These jobs are also the first to go in a pinch: the ONS reported in April this year that 53% of the employees who have vanished from PAYE over the last year were under 25. Both the warehouse worker and graphic designer have low-paid and sporadic income, funding at best low-cost and insecure rental housing; forming a family and having kids for many such people will feel nigh-on impossible.
Of course, there are plenty of occupations that don’t meet Rao’s description. But it disproportionately describes working life for the young, where a perfect storm of insecurity, rising costs and shrinking opportunities is driving them sharply Left: 56% of 18-24-year-olds who voted Labour in 2019, compared to 35% in my cohort (40s) and 14% in my mum’s (70s).
This group is increasingly militant. It’s a viewpoint epitomised by commentator Grace Blakeley, who is critical of Amazon while treating issues of culture and community as secondary to those of economic insecurity. What’s driving the civil war on the Left is that a life defined by instability tends to produce a worldview radically at odds with the core values that gave birth to “traditional working-class” politics.
The “traditional” Left – let’s call it the Proletariat Left – was born out of the industrial revolution: a transformation in working people’s lives that both displaced workers from agriculture and homogenised lives en masse. Think of the start and end bells marking factory shifts, the neat rows of workers’ cottages built in terrace style, the routinised movements of an assembly line or the sheer level of coordination needed to keep shift work running smoothly.
As well as being able to work en masse, this cohesion made it easier to organise en masse. Over time, what emerged was the potent blend of intellectuals, the quietly patriotic and the fiercely revolutionary that characterised twentieth-century Leftism. That Leftism humanised the rapacity of 19th-century industry, and softened raw capitalism with social-democratic infrastructure such as the NHS.
In contrast, the Precariat Left was born into the post-industrial era, and many of its members have no personal experience of any other. They are defined by, suffer under, and also celebrate the absence of the very stability, cohesion and homogeneity that formed the bedrock of the Proletariat Left.
Stable jobs are dwindling — as is the cohesion that made it possible to unionise for better conditions. Above the API, how is a freelance graphic designer meant to negotiate for a better piece rate, when he or she is competing against workers all over the world? And below it, you don’t need to be a xenophobe to see how much more difficult it is to form a trade union if your co-workers are on zero-hours contracts, come from all over the world, and mostly talk to their fellow-countrymen during breaks. But at the same time, the Precariat Left welcomes diversity — because that’s the world they grew up in.
From the vantage point of the Proletariat Left, obviously what’s needed is more solidarity. For example, Blue Labour — perhaps the last remaining sub-group within the party that voices Proletarian Left concerns — sometimes discusses trade-offs between cultural cohesion and immigration. But from a Precariat Left point of view, talking about cultural cohesion simply doesn’t make much sense — and routinely traduces Blue Labour as racist.
Instead of Proletarian Left-style stability and solidarity, the world of the Precariat Left is shifting, provisional and temporary — whether in terms of identity, lifestyle, or domestic arrangement. It’s international; it doesn’t look askance at people with minority sexual identities or gender expressions; it’s suspicious of anything too conventional-looking — perhaps because those things now feel profoundly off-limits.
Coalition-building among the Precariat Left is not just between Hampstead and Hartlepool but across barriers of language, culture and values, as well as above and below the API and between graduates and non-graduates. At its best, “woke” identity politics is trying to do just that: build solidarity in a world fissured by difference.
Yet it runs into difficulty on two fronts. Firstly, the Precariat Left preference for identities and alliances rather than values and solidarity is understandable on its own terms, but has also morphed into an aesthetic for many who are in fact comfortably “above the API” and always likely to remain so. In the process it risks turning against its own: consider how protests against police brutality in impoverished communities rapidly morphed into arguments about abolishing the police — in truth not a popular policy among the actual precariat, though still appealing to elite anti-authoritarians from safe neighbourhoods.
Secondly, as we’ve seen recently in Britain, hearing their entire worldview traduced as obsolete bigotry understandably incenses the Proletariat Left. And this group, despite the tectonic demographic shifts away from its worldview, is still numerous, and electorally essential for a Left-wing party.
This may change, though. Most of the giants of the 20th-century labour movement are old, or already gone. Most attendees at the Durham Miners’ Gala have no first-hand pit experience. The last industrial jobs in the West are falling to robots, and both the mass culture and the labour movement it created are a distant memory for most.
But it’s not as though working people no longer need advocacy. Amazon recently apologised for falsely denying that its drivers are sometimes compelled by tight delivery schedules to urinate in bottles. In response, the new post-industrial Left seeks to challenge Amazon and its ilk today, not via the old union style but forms of solidarity that celebrate instability, diversity and inclusion.
Will they be successful? This version of the Left has shown a poor record so far of evading those gilded entryists who love to play with instability but will never live amid the consequences of their games. And it remains to be seen whether the new Left is capable of organising at the scale needed to take on our new corporate overlords. But for the sake of the new precariats, let’s hope they are.