The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Class Sentiment of the Precariat: Reflections on social movements in Portugal 2011-2013.

In 2011, analysing new and ever more widely spread practices of informal work Guy Standing made his important intervention announcing the emergence of the precariat as a new class-in-the-making (see The Precariat – a new class agent for transformation?). In this guest post, Florian Butollo critically engages with Standing’s claim through an examination of social movements in Portugal between 2011 and 2013. He demonstrates that provided we have a broader and more political understanding of class, these movements can still be understood in class terms, providing us with a better way of thinking about the possibilities of collective resistance against exploitation.  

Songs of Resistance

In Portugal, it seems, every revolution starts with a song. In 1974, the song “Grândola, vila morena” by the then imprisoned singer-songwriter José Afonso served as the secret code for the military coup which then turned into a revolution. In 2011, it sounded like this (click on the symbol for subtitles):

The song “Parva que sou” by the pop-folk group “Deolinda” expressed the sentiments of precarious university graduates with few, but fitting words: “I work without being paid, I need to be lucky to get an internship, I have to live at my parents’ house and I even have to postpone marriage and having a family for financial reasons. What a stupid world in which one has to study to become a slave – and how stupid am I to accept all of this!”

This song is a magnificent piece of interventionist art and it deserves to be praised for its great performance and poetry. But the song became known not only for its sheer artistic merits, but because of what happened between the artists and the audience. Deolinda’s lyrics nailed it for hundreds of thousands of people to whom this song precisely expressed their experiences. At its first ever performance in Oporto, from which the above video clip is taken, every line of the song is received with spontaneous applause. After its dramatic climax, in which the singer Ana Bacalhau expresses that she is not stupid to accept this any longer, the end of the song is drowned in standing ovations by the audience. It is noteworthy that, although Deolinda is a left-leaning band, they attract a rather broad and diverse audience. The reaction thus reflected how deep the political alienation of the Portuguese people ran.

But this was not the end of it: the above youtube clip went viral in Portugal and within a week received more than 50,000 clicks – it even became a topic in the evening news. And it inspired young people to act on their own behalf. Four young activists launched the call for a demonstration, entitled “geração à rasca” (roughly: “the anxious/desperate generation”). I was able to interview one of them recently and he explained that both the Arab spring and the public response to Deolinda’s performance showed them that it was possible to hit the streets.

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

Yet, the turnout at the demonstrations surpassed their expectations by far. About 200,000 people went to the streets in Lisbon and another 50,000 in Oporto where this demonstration probably was the largest since the revolution in 1974 (keep in mind that Portugal has only 10 million inhabitants and do the maths!). Many of the people interviewed on the street by the media said that their situation was “just like in the song” since they still had to live at their parent’s house, worked without income, etc.

Precariousness and class unity

The movement then made a spectacular development. It further radicalised and outgrew the political arbitrariness that characterised the first mobilisation. In September 2012 there was a mobilisation under the motto “Screw the Troika! We want our lives back!” which even surpassed the first demos in terms of numbers, when around half a million people participated in Lisbon.

The precise dynamics of this movement and its difficult legacy of merging the street demonstrations with trade union mobilisations are not the focus of this contribution since they have been described elsewhere (here and here). Suffice to say that this cycle of mobilisations was characterised by a duality of protest forms with giant street demonstrations called via the internet alternating with general strikes that were mobilised by the unions. Activists struggled to bring these mobilisations together – partly they were successful, but they could not really overcome this duality. So, are we witnessing the emergence of a new subject, a precariat, as Guy Standing would argue?

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

Taking at face value, this analysis seems convincing. The facebook mobilisations clearly were distinct in the sense that they primarily articulated the lived experience of a particular group, the university graduates whose class position, given that they are in a transitory phase of their lives, is not clearly defined. The mobilisation was thus framed as one of a “generation”, cutting across class boundaries and traditional political alignments. Their demands did not mainly refer to their working experience, but to their whole life situation, i.e. the realm of reproduction and the difficulties they encountered when they were not working. A recurrent theme, and probably the core of discontent, was not the quality of, but the access to work. This was a cry for a decent future of those outside of the “zone of integration” (Castel). Thus, the focus of these mobilisations was much less pragmatic than the horizon of demands characteristic of trade union mobilisations. “We want our lives back” – not only modest improvements.

Rather than interpreting the demonstrations as the emergence of a new subject, I would argue that it is necessary to view this movement in class terms. However, we need to have a much broader and more political understanding of class than it has become typical for the reified “labourism” that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. First, although the demonstrations were framed as the movement of the young generation, they became a catalyst for a broader discontent of the “less fortunate ones”. The youth were supported by their families. Marching alongside university graduates there were pensioners whose pensions had been slashed and workers who had been hit by wage cuts or unemployment. Austerity was an assault on the broad majority of the Portuguese population and “geração à rasca” became a catalyst for wider class anger. Reproductive relationships were vital: everyone knew one or several people within their families who were affected.

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

Second, we need a wider notion of class than the one centred around the industrial working class. The expansion of higher education was particularly rapid in semi-peripheral countries like Portugal. The education system pulled young people from rural backwardness and from working class families into universities, because modern capitalism required an academically-trained workforce. It would be mistaken to interpret university students as “middle class” just because they are not working yet or are excluded from doing so. And the times where an academic degree served as a guarantee for a higher income and a privileged social position are over.

Third, the mobilisations were not only, but to a very strong degree, about relations at work. They addressed the working realities of graduates who faced a new reality of unstable, precarious work. This ran counter to the promises given during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Portuguese economy seemed to catch up in terms of wealth creation. Their experience represents a new class reality and, to add insult to injury, the broken promises of social upward mobility.

So is this just the same as the old working class movement? Of course not, and in this sense Standing’s analysis is useful. There are new subjectivities and experiences within and without work to which the traditional organisations of the working class are finding it difficult to relate. Since trade unionism relied more on institutional power than on renewing organisational power for quite some time, it has failed to represent the working class in its entirety, i.e. it has failed to organise newly emerging segments of the working class. Moreover, the systems of industrial relations by and large confine trade unions to act around economic issues, a tendency labelled as “labourism”. The political issues around the lived experience of the working class do not find an addressee – especially since social liberalism has captured social democratic parties (Sanders and Corbyn being the possible exceptions). What we’re left with is atomisation and a heterogeneity that is an expression of the political defensiveness of working class interests amidst structural change on the one hand, and an increasingly diverse set of working experiences on the other. The debates about new subjectivities help to sense those experiences that are different from the clichéd notions of labourism and the new subjectivities that are involved.

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

But was class ever that monolithic? This is what the imaginary about the Fordist factory and the collective memory about a politicised and united workers’ movement in the 20th century makes us believe. The case is often made that class today is more complex and diverse than it was than, say, 100 years ago, although the evidence about this is far from clear. After all, the working class historically consisted not only of miners, auto workers or dockers with a collective work experience and a strong work identity. It also contained domestic workers, employees in small offices and workshops and workers in insecure employment relations. Precarity, especially concerning female workers, already existed before the strong regulation of working conditions under Fordism became the norm.

Class unity thus never arose organically from the working situation. It was always an act of mediating diverse work experiences and subjectivities. Collective identities and imaginaries evolved over the course of decades of social conflict as E.P. Thompson has shown. It was always a process that involved political organisations and it was never limited to work experience in the strict sense, but addressed the entire life situation of the working class. The limits of class unity therefore to a large degree lie in the limits of “labourism” to forge class unity in a broader sense. Such a task is far from easy and riddled with contradictions – but so it always was historically.

Florian Butollo is assistant professor in the department of labour, industrial and economic sociology at the University of Jena, Germany. He lived in Portugal between 2009 and 2013.

This is a version of the song “Parva que sou” from a concert in Lisbon a little later with better sound and image quality: 

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