Precarious Politics

The precarious cannot be unified or represented, their interests are so disparate that classical forms of corporate organizing are not effective. The many precarious are dispersed both in relations of production and through diverse modes of production, which absorb and engender subjectivities, extend their economic exploitation, and multiply identities and work places. It is not only work that is precarious and dispersed, but life itself. In all their differences, the precarious tend to be isolated and individualized, because they do short-term jobs, get by from project to project, and often fall through collective social-security systems. There are no lobbies or forms of representation for the diverse precarious.[1]

From within a historical moment where the future feels uncertain, there has been lots of discussion about political struggle. On the Left, urgent discussions have focused on imagining new forms of human sociality that no longer reproduce the various inequalities currently being produced by a variety of political and economic structures. Inevitably, this necessary imagining, which correctly contests the apparent naturalness of neoliberal modes of life and labor, leads to a discussion of how to turn new possibilities into new realities, how to bring together or build a multitude able to make positive change on a large, if not ultimately global, scale. A possible response is to suggest articulating a singular oppositional identity that acts as a rallying cry, the recognition of an essential identity that binds an individual to a larger body. A similar but importantly distinct response is to suggest building a coalition out of the intersection between many already-existing identities. In this response, it is not a central identity that is pursued, but instead a shared goal, which preserves the separate identities as they pursue mutually beneficial transformative ends. It is my claim in this essay that both responses are insufficient to contest the hegemony of neoliberalism and the precarity it engenders. The normalization of precarity, the shift of responsibility for life from the state to individuals suspended from traditional support networks, combined with the challenge precarity poses for representation, require a reconsideration of how to combat the hegemony of neoliberal capital. I suggest we have to reconsider how the oppositional force gets built by refusing an emphasis on identity and representation to activate political mobilization.

It is important to connect the creeping of precarity into everyday life to neoliberal governance. In her densely concise States of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, Isabell Lorey connects the privatization of essential state services, intended to provide existential and economic stability, to the normalization of precarity. Combined with the rise of new forms of labor, this privatization perpetuates the feeling and experience of instability. One way to understand neoliberal precarity is the following: employment requires fewer individuals to perform more tasks in less time, and those individuals are disciplined into this exploitative work regime by the threat of unemployment and its concurrent implications in terms of personal finance and self-fashioning.[2] Faced with the possible loss of the self, individuals are forced to take on responsibility for managing their own precarity. The structurally unemployed or under-employed find themselves out of work and unable to access support from the state, either through welfare or through employment, as neoliberalism defines their lack of employment as a matter of personal choice in order to justify the financial restructuring of the state.

Austerity governance, the shifting of responsibility for the lives of its citizens from the state to individuals themselves, functions as a form of labor discipline. Ceding the state’s historical and imperfectly enforced roll of protecting its citizens from capital forces less to do more for fear of becoming the more who do less, thus creating a sense of crisis. For this reason, Jeff Shantz refers to neoliberal states as “Crisis States.” As he explains in his recent book by the same title, “The state form advancing through the neoliberal policies effects a social organization of crisis.”[3] Shantz reveals that neoliberalism cannot solve the variety of crises that are part of and lead to a sense of personal precarity because neoliberalism produces these crises through its form of austerity governance. By connecting neoliberalism to crisis, Shantz demonstrates how neoliberal policies perpetuate rather than ameliorate precarity and crisis.

Shantz traces the origins of neoliberalism’s crisis governance to Ronald Reagan. According to Shantz, Reagan “provided the template for Crisis State governance by governments of all stripes (Clinton, Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, etc.).”[4] The Reagan era is revealed as an era of the state restructuring its relationship to its citizens and capital. Accompanying a reduction in spending on state services and programs was the combination of tax cuts for wealthy corporations and the rise of financial capital alongside an attack on union power. The privatization of the state’s responsibilities was rationalized through an appeal to less government and fiscal responsibility, while its attack on unions made collective action increasingly untenable. But, as Shantz shows, neoliberals from Reagan onward have preached the need for cuts to state spending while increasing its spending on military and policing: “[People] are rendered more and more precarious, and thus more needing of surveillance, regulation and containment within a broadened and interlinked carceral apparatus.”[5] With Reagan as the template, Shantz shows how neoliberal governance maintains, perpetuates, and normalizes a growing sense of crisis and precarity. In a society governed by the laws and ideology of neoliberalism, it is the responsibility of individuals, who increasingly have less recourse to the state for assistance, to meet the requirements of the market, no matter how exploitative, or risk being subject to a repressive state apparatus. In this way, neoliberal capitalism produces poverty while simultaneously criminalizing it.

Neoliberal governance has historically mobilized fears about racialized criminals or welfare abusers to justify policies that disproportionally impact poor people of color. As Lester K. Spence notes in his Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics: “Race does a tremendous amount of work in generating public support for punitive policies. Even for the unemployed.”[6] Spence goes on to connect a variety of historical examples of neoliberal policies at the city, state, and federal levels across the United States that reduced state spending for communities abandoned by global capital. One of the many examples Spence provides is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, signed into law by Bill Clinton, “flanked by two single black mothers,”[7] in 1996. Spence explains that Clinton relied on “racist images of black women and black men” to justify ending “a longstanding right to aid from the government, replacing it with a temporary ‘privilege’ that could only be received if the recipient behaved correctly.”[8] In its transition away from the rights of citizens to privileges, this legislation fundamentally changes the relationship between the state and its citizens. With TANF, the citizen is ultimately responsible for their place in a world without history and can only temporarily appeal to the privileges of the state for redress from their apparently natural condition. This model of citizenship, driven by individual work and responsibility, relies on the specter of a threatening Other who does not work appropriately and should be subject to the state’s repressive power. This neoliberal rhetoric is used to discuss criminals, gang members, the homeless, immigrants. Through this piece of neoliberal legislation, Spence highlights how neoliberalism utilizes the fear of a racialized Other to privatize the state’s functions, criminalize poor communities of color, and imprison those who have been made Other.

Photography by Thomas Gillaspy © 2016

It is clear from this that neoliberalism relies on racial language and imagery to justify austerity policies that predominantly negatively impact those communities represented as threats to racialized notions of citizenship and the state. The temptation, therefore, is to see neoliberalism in black and white, repressed and repressor. In this framing, the force to contest neoliberal capitalism and precarity is already clear. Blackness, what is mobilized by neoliberalism to justify the production and policing of racialized poverty, becomes the oppositional force. Because neoliberalism mobilizes anxiety about Latino criminals and radical Islamic terrorists to perpetuate surveillance and punishment, it is not just blackness that holds the possibility of being oppositional, but also any non-white group. One could imagine that the very real exploitation of neoliberalism would be sufficient to mobilize these groups, along with the poor who are exponentially impacted by neoliberal policies, to be the historical agent of liberation, the return of the historically dispossessed to reclaim the world and overthrow the lifeless corpse of capitalism.[9]

However, neoliberalism’s production of crisis and concurrent emphasis on the individual to manage their own precarity disrupts the construction and representation of any racial or cultural identity as homogenous. Because neoliberalism makes identity itself precarious, if it has not always been so even in its liberal form, no identity is naturally counter-hegemonic to neoliberalism. In an explosive moment at the end of the first chapter, Spence undoes a black and white analysis of neoliberalism by demonstrating how neoliberal ideology is reproduced in black communities:

[Neoliberal] ideas and policies are not simply produced and reproduced by whites to withhold resources from blacks. Black institutions and ideas have themselves been transformed. Black elected officials and civil rights leaders reproduce these ideas, participating in a remobilization project of sorts, one that consistently posits that the reason black people aren’t as successful as their white counterparts is because of a lack of hustle, is because they don’t quite have the work ethic necessary to succeed in the modern moment.[10]

In many ways, Spence’s text shows that blackness, like any identity category, is not a singular, already-existing agent with a natural disposition toward revolution. Instead, through its analysis of the exchange between neoliberal policies and late twentieth century/early twenty-first century black politics and intellectual and popular culture, Knocking the Hustle shows how identities are historical, formed within and influenced by changing and changeable political and economic realities. Spence astutely demonstrates how even communities who are negatively impacted by the expansion of neoliberal ideology reproduce this ideology through a focus on the wholly agential subject: the hustler.

Using the latter, Spence highlights the impact of neoliberal policies that shift the responsibility for life away from the state and onto the individual who is forced to hustle to survive. As he explains, “under the neoliberal turn arguably the most important figure is the figure who consistently works.”[11] This figure is the hustler. The hustler and the compulsion to hustle appear, Spence points out, in a variety of forms in contemporary black culture, from trap music to the prosperity gospel preached at megachurches.[12] The emphasis on personal responsibility and hustle as a response to a society without a social safety net assumes the state plays no role in the normalization of lives dominated by commuting to, participating in, or recovering from precarious work. This is the work discipline of neoliberalism: the creation of a sense of precarity that drives individuals to work nonstop. The hustler, Spence’s analysis of neoliberalism reveals, does not hustle because he wants to, but because it appears as the only choice.

Using Foucault’s notion of self-governance, Lorey helps to demonstrate how the hustler internalizes the imperative to hustle. Self-governance implies the ways in which a population is made, through a variety of state- and work-disciplinary mechanisms, and comes to make, through self-discipline, itself into a subject. Neoliberal self-governance takes place under conditions where the burden of life has been shifted from the state to individuals who are made to appear solely responsible for their lives, their successes or failures, their employment or imprisonment. This transition produces precarious subjects who are increasingly called upon to live lives of constant precarious labor, to manage their precarity at all times, to constantly hustle, at work and at home. In this way, precarity becomes a way of life, a condition that not only structures employment, but also structures the governing of the self. The uncertainty produced by neoliberalism looms within the texture of daily life, informing not only conscious decisions about how to allocate resources for an uncertain future but also unconscious thoughts and behaviors. It is the production of radically isolated individuals who are driven by one imperative: to pursue security in a world of financial, political, environmental, and humanitarian crises.

The individual hustler, hustling, working multiple jobs, learning to love and identify with exploitative conditions, all appear variously in this moment of neoliberalism.[13] The individualized nature of precarity makes opaque the connection between politics and the everyday. When life is spent in an endless search for personal stability and security in a moment of world-historical crisis, where survival is turned into the rhetoric of personal risk management, it is difficult to imagine alternatives to the present: both the collectives of care Shantz theorizes at the end of his text and Spence’s anti-police legislation and institution building. But just as importantly, neoliberalism and precarity also make it difficult to imagine how to constitute a multitude that could bring about structural change either through or outside of electoral politics.

This is what Lorey points to in the opening quote in discussing precarity’s engendering of subjectivities. Neoliberalism relies on the production of precarious individuals, which challenges the ability to unify the precarious. As precarity is normalized at the level of the state and capital, identities are proliferated through a variety of vehicles of self-representation. Part of what it means to be a precarious individual is to constantly represent oneself, through wage labor but also digitally. It is this proliferation of individuals who increasingly experience themselves as isolated from politics or history that challenge representation, political and otherwise. It is precisely this feature of precarity, the ability to construct individuals so radically unmoored to any non-repressive relationship to the state, that challenges “classical forms of corporate organizing” or conventional ways of imagining how the experience of shared precarity can be politically mobilized to counter the dehumanizing results of neoliberalism.

Because of its reliance on identity, neoliberalism ultimately disrupts the ability to articulate a single counter-hegemonic identity. The idea of the 99 percent could be seen as an attempt to articulate something like the collective identity of precarity. This shared identity and those who mobilize it for political purposes helpfully point out the massive inequality of wealth distribution and the tendency for neoliberal capital to function for the benefit of the wealthy. “We are the 99 percent” is an impressive and powerful slogan. However, it reveals something challenging about organizing political collectives in its reliance on exclusion in its moment of collective inclusion. The focus on constructing a singular, shared identity that can contest the individual percent of super wealthy and all-powerful elite threatens to explain existing class, race, and gender divisions as the ideological products of neoliberal austerity governance, not as products of longer histories that are connected to but historically distinct from neoliberalism. The goal to build an identity for everyone is genuinely laudable in this time of fissure. Through social media, people share their experiences of being the 99 percent and represent themselves as the 99 percent. But ultimately its reliance both on identity, what we all already are and represent ourselves to be, and the remainder, what is not us, threatens to simply use the visual language and media outlets of advertising in attempt to use neoliberal ideology to defeat neoliberalism.

The ability to represent oneself, though powerful, is not in itself counter-hegemonic. It could be argued that too often the representations stand in place for the ability to produce large scale, material change to what is being represented. There was an overwhelming sense around the election of Barack Obama in 2008 that this represented a significant historical moment, which in many ways it was, that said something about a new relationship to the history of racialized exploitation in this country, of new possibilities for ways of living in the world. Obama represented hope and change, and his election in some way, it was assumed, signaled that hope and change would follow. The representative, Obama, represented a longing for something different. Interestingly, the same could be said of the most recent election with a representative representing both the fantasy of stability and the fantasy of shared interests. In both cases, however, what was and will be revealed is the representation or representative, in itself, cannot bring liberation because it is shaped by the pervasiveness of neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, representations and representatives, even those who appear to be the most subversive, can exist alongside of and perpetuate instability and precarity.

As can be seen with the 99 percent and Obama, representation is used to construct a shared identity, a rallying point for individuals to recognize themselves and their experiences. Discernable within this version of political organization is the emphasis on active identification with an identity as the basis for participation. In many ways, this emphasis on both identity and on activity is reminiscent of the demands of neoliberalism. The reliance on heroic action and active identification to combat crises threatens to reproduce a political subject that bears too close a resemblance to the figure that constantly works, Spence’s hustler. In its oppositional valence, this is seen as a necessary commitment to a good cause while in its hegemonic valence it is the necessary commitment to exploitation. But in both cases, the remedying of systemic injustices is the task of individuals.

Following Lorey, because the precarious cannot be represented, the oppositional force to neoliberal capital and precarity may appear in an impulse, a behavior not an identity. Lorey closes her text by discussing the potentiality that exists in refusal: “through permanent singular refusals, the small sabotages and resistances of precarious everyday life, a potentiality emerges that subverts the disciplining of governmental precarization time and again.”[14] Refusal offers, unlike politics that rely either on the construction of a shared identity or on the mobilization of already existing identities, the possibility for a new type of political imagining, a new political subject, and the possibility of new forms of togetherness. Refusal may hold the key to building the force that will contest neoliberal capital and discovering what comes next. It is for this reason that contesting neoliberalism and precarity requires not only new visions of society, but also new ways of imagining collective action to restructure the experience of the everyday. Refusal leaves open possibility by refusing what is present to it. It may only be by refusing precarious politics that the precarity of the present can finally be overcome.


[1] Isabell Lorey, States of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, trans. Aileen Derieg (London: Verso, 2015), 9.

[2] As I will try to show later, but is evidenced even in this moment: precarity is difficult to summarize or represent with a single instance. This is because precarity increasingly shows itself in a variety of behaviors that are all linked together by neoliberal ideology but appear as if they were merely the problems of individuals. While an inexhaustible list of situations would reveal the sprawl of neoliberal precarity, from the need for constant communication to working for commission at a nonprofit, neoliberal precarity will always be more than what is represented.

[3] Jeff Shantz, Crisis States: Governance, Resistance, & Precarious Capitalism (New York: punctum books, 2016), 23.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Lester K. Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (New York: punctum books, 2015), 23.

[7] Spence, Knocking the Hustle, 37.

[8] Ibid.

[9] On black consciousness as an alternative to Western identity, see Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). The book is really an essential text though its title is slightly misleading for it is not really a discussion of black Marxism because it leaves out too many essential thinkers, such as Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis. Despite its tendency toward essentialism, the depth of research and sheer archival labor of Robinson makes Black Marxism feel revelatory and genuinely enlightening. From Yanga and the town of San Lorenzo de Cerralvo as instances of “the struggle against slavery” which sought to “preserve the collective identity of African peoples,” to Harry Haywood who wrote Black Bolshevik and was “one of the American Blacks brought to the Soviet Union to study” to be a member of the Negro Commission at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, Robinson provides a treasure trove of historical instances of powerfully hopeful black resistance that accompanied the stranglehold of global capital and the rise of the European concept of the industrial proletariat. We may even discern something similar in our own moment of #BlackLivesMatter. Robinson’s insight deserves appreciation: struggle and resistance appear in a variety of guises and are endemic to what it means to be exploited.

[10] Spence, Knocking the Hustle, 25.

[11] Ibid, 11.

[12] In another place, I explored a similar insight to this in the music of the rapper Project Pat. It was my claim, arrived at only after the fact, that trap music is the music of precarity with its emphasis on constant work, the feeling of imminent threat and crisis. These lyrical themes appear in trap music’s aural framework too.

[13] Under neoliberalism, loving a job becomes the alibi through which precarious self-discipline is internalized. This love serves to normalize conditions of exploitation, poor pay, increased performance demands, lower wages. The normalization of this precarity also serves to undermine the establishment of any large-scale union support or new forms of collective labor. Both the threat that things could get worse and the fantasy of agential freedom leave little choice but to love the thing that hurts.

[14] Lorey, State of Insecurity, 111.