Balancing Acts

We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. ... Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery. The natural world, whose wonders enhance our lives, and upon which our survival depends, is being rubbed out with horrible speed. Those to whom we look for guardianship, in government and among the economic elite, do not arrest this decline, they accelerate it.

The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?

For some reason this article made me think of all I have been reading about the precariat lately.
Guy Standing is a scholar at Soas, who was once a high-up at the UN's International Labour Organisation. In his vocabulary, to be at the sharp end of modern capitalism is to be a member of the precariat: a split-off from the shrinking working class, and one which is growing in size, though not yet in influence.
His 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class set out its story: the term was originally used in 1980s France to denote temporary and seasonal workers, but now, with labour insecurity a feature of most western economies, it is the perfect word for a great mass of people, "flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits", who enjoy almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the 20th century. In Standing's view, they increasingly resemble denizens rather than citizens: people with restricted rights, largely living towards the bottom of a "tiered membership" model of society, in which a plutocratic elite takes the single biggest share, while other classes – the salariat, free-ranging "proficians", and what remains of the old working class – divide up most of what remains.
A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens – review
by John Harris, The Guardian, April 9, 2010

This is not a new phenomenon of course
What these harsh economic conditions have produced in Canada, as they have in other capitalist nations like the U.S., is a split in the working class between a relatively better-paid, more secure stratum (but one that is not immune to the effects of recession, as the present period is demonstrating), and a large "surplus population" of unemployed and underemployed workers, forced either to fill low-wage Jobs or to remain idle, waiting to be called up during a period of exceptional economic expansion. ... While in the Marxist sense all productive workers face exploitation, members of the surplus population face an extra measure of it in that they receive a significantly smaller portion of the product of their labor than other workers-- often below the amount required for normal standards of subsistence. They are what has been termed "superexploited".

but we are all surplus labour now.

Here is Andrew Cash on the issue of the precariat in my neighbourhood:

In 2013 Cash put forward a private member's bill C-542, the Urban Workers Strategy Act, designed to grant urban workers greater access to social support mechanisms and basic labour standards. (Read the Rabble article by Ella Bedar - an intern! - about the Bill here.)

According to Cash, you are an urban worker if your source of income is vulnerable or precarious because you work without benefits, workplace pensions or job security in the following circumstances:
(a) as an employee on a short-term contractual basis, whether continuously or intermittently;
(b) as a self-employed individual;
(c) as an employee on a part-time basis; or
(d) as an intern.
The McMaster University study, It’s More than Poverty, was prepared by the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, a joint university-community initiative.

The United Way follow up to the 2013 study, The Precarity Penalty, can be found here and an overview can be found here.
Lewchuk's study shows that nearly 44 per cent of working adults face some level of precarity, a fact that Statistics Canada labour force data doesn't always show. While roughly half of this group work in temporary or contract employment, the other half work jobs that might on the surface appear stable, but in reality contain many of the characteristics of precarious labour, such as irregular and inconsistent scheduling and a lack of any benefits beyond basic wages.
by Ella Bedar, Rabble, May 22, 2015
The longer-term trend points to more insecure employment, said Prof. Lewchuk. “Each time there’s a recovery, the level of security is a little bit lower than the previous boom. I think this is because the competitive pressures are greater – firms are looking to cut costs … technology has changed, and there’s an infrastructure where they can go to temp agencies, and get not just unskilled workers, but they can get CEOs now.”
by Tavia Grant, The Globe and Mail, May 21, 2015

This is not a Canadian phenomenon. In May of this year the International Labour Organization published The World Employment and Social Outlook: The changing nature of jobs.

What was once viewed as a passing crisis now seems to be the new normal, producing deep psychological unease within the workforce and growing inequality between those with stable incomes and those without.

Global financial officials are worried to the point they've again started using the term "hysteresis," borrowed from physics, to warn that long-established unemployment is becoming "structural" and therefore harder to correct, as the jobless lose skills and companies grow addicted to cheaper, temporary labour.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, often called the developed world's think tank, describes this ugly phenomenon as the rise of the precariat — a play on the working-class proletariat and meaning those trapped in precarious lives with neither material nor psychological welfare.

by Brian Stewart, CBC News, June 01, 2015

So what does this have to do with literacy work, literacy workers and adult education policy?

Many literacy workers and adult educators have been members of the precariat for as long as we can remember. A small group of us actually approached a public sector union in the late 1990s to see about how we could work together for "greater access to social support mechanisms and basic labour standards" but the union was not ready work with us. Maybe they will get ready now.

As we have mentioned a few times on this blog, on this contested ground that is adult education, the battle for a system that is accountable to learners has been lost. The primary "customers" for adult education and training are employers. Governments at all levels and in all jurisdictions try to design training that meets the needs of employers and programs are assessed by their ability to meet labour market outcomes instead of educational ones. However, the labour market outcomes expressed by these bureaucrats and policy makers - a permanent, stable, well-paying job - are not possible for most workers and are at odds with the needs of employers "addicted to cheaper, temporary labour."

And this is where we fit in.
As anyone who’s watched a TED talk, read a David Brooks column, or attended an Aspen Ideas Festival can tell you, there’s hardly a single issue currently vexing Americans that the 1 percent doesn’t think can be solved with more “education.” Urban poverty? Education! Stagnant wages? Education! Police brutality? Education! ... If you can think of a problem that might be at least mitigated by redistribution, you can bet that there’s some sage of the plutocracy out there insisting that we focus on education instead.

So how are we going to fulfill our mandate?
In response, the Westminster [British government] consensus insists that [the precariat] should be subject to regimes that are not just cruel, but dysfunctional. In other words, it doesn't actually matter if so-called welfare-to-work programmes actually help people, or just screw them up: the point is that they visibly punish them in pursuit of a political dividend. In that sense, the precariat is not only at the cutting edge of the economy, but at the receiving end of a postmodern politics that values the manipulation of appearances much more highly than reality. 
A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens – review
by John Harris, The Guardian, April 9, 2010

Are we going to continue to design "boutique" programs that profess to prepare workers to be "nimble" and "flexible" enough to meet the mercurial needs of capricious employers? Or will we be adherents of the critical perspective
while liberals see literacy education as a technical process of compensating for cognitive skill deficiencies among the poor (to permit them to better adjust to the needs of the economy), adherents of the critical perspective view such efforts both as ineffective - because they do not deal with the root cause of poverty - and as oppressive - because they better accommodate the poor to the structures which exploit them. For their part, they would make adult basic and literacy education a vehicle for the awakening of critical social consciousness among members of subordinate social classes and a means of support for collective efforts to radically transform the class system.

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