Embarking on my Ph.D. project this time last year the notion of precarity- primarily defined in my terms as those labour and social relations borne of neoliberal, globalised political economies which strip workers, citizens, subjects of their sense of a secure or predictable existence- loomed large and vivid in my imagination. I projected into the future, seeing the weavers I would be working with as living precarious lives, hand-to-mouth existences in which survival was almost entirely dependent either upon ones capacity to work, or should you be unable to support yourself directly (as a child or an elderly or disabled person), your ability to develop and draw on strong social networks of mutual support. My thinking on the issue was largely concerned with how people cope in the absence of government instituted social security nets and I spent long hours pondering how skilled craftspeople who are rendered unable to work due to ageing, illness or disability secure their wellbeing and that of their families. I was (and still am to an important extent) concerned with the strategies which craftspeople devise and employ in order to not only survive but anchor themselves when they are living under conditions of considerable economic vulnerability. In the field these themes have undoubtedly retained their crucial importance in the way which I frame my work and no account of the weavers with whom I work can capture the richness of their lives without taking into account the creativity and sheer hard graft which they put into the fundamental work of keeping life going. Keeping this in mind, however, a bit of distance from my own situation and life in London has forced me to begin a critical evaluation of what exactly I meant when I thought of precarity and who may fall into this possible precariat. Reflecting upon the issue from my position in the field, I feel as if my preoccupation with a precariat in my anthropological work was considerably influenced by the degree to which I felt precarity defined my own position as a young person in Cameron’s post-crisis Britain.
In the summer after I finished my undergraduate degree I worked in a frozen yoghurt shop in Covent Garden for £6 an hour; after tax I was taking home £4.80. I had a zero hours contract and every week I waited for my supervisor to post the rota so as to know whether I would get enough work. A thirty five hour week (always worked over a weekend and rotad in such a way as to make it very difficult to either get a second job or have any kind of life) brought in less than £170 and even with money left over from my student loan, a university hardship grant and my parents help paying the rent living in London became incredibly expensive and hard work. At the time I didn’t know what I was going to “do” after university; I had applied for Masters and Ph.D. courses but, without the means to pay the fees or support myself through postgraduate study, I was waiting to hear if I had been awarded funding and feeling pretty certain that I wouldn’t get any. I had seen friends who had graduated the year before struggle desperately to find work and the graduates of 2011 were cheerfully informed they were entering the job market at the worst possible moment in history and that they should revise their expectations accordingly. My despair at the general situation was compounded when before (luckily!!) landing the job in the frozen yoghurt shop I had struggled through the application process for Job Seekers Allowance and multiple interviews at the Job Centre to be told that not only was I not eligible for the paltry £50.95 benefit but that (more shockingly) I would not be helped in finding work because I was not a claimant. Having spent three years and racked up almost thirty thousand pounds in debt on my education I felt completely uncertain about my future and a kind of hopelessness began to set in; I imagined a future in which I would be forced to move back to my parents home and rely indefinitely upon their support whilst I scraped by on the minimum wage.
My situation was in no way exceptional and I make no claims to having experienced any real hardship; indeed I was exceptionally lucky to be given the opportunity to go back to university at the end of that summer. However, in retrospect, I can see that the experience, alongside the overriding sense that so many many people of my generation are finding themselves seemingly perpetually trapped in similarly uncertain and frustrating situations, had quite a profound impact upon the way I consider the relationship between work, skills and opportunity in contemporary Britain. Over the past year, as the Government has continued to pursue an ideologically driven policy of devastating public sector funding cuts, which even the IMF have had to admit is damaging the UK economy and which will ultimately leave the country spending proportionally less on public services than the United States (see Aditya Chakrabortty’s insightful analysis here- ), it has become impossible to ignore the way in which the vulnerable who had been sheltered from at least some of the worst excesses of poverty by our social security systems and national health service, however threadbare and dysfunctional, are being pushed into positions of extreme and systemically induced precarity. The piecemeal privatisation of health services, the continued and aggressive implementation of workfare programmes by incentivised private companies such as A4e, the cutting of funding for domestic violence and rape crisis services…the list could go on and on; all measures which push those in the most precarious positions that little bit closer to the edge of a livable and dignified existence. Done in the context of widespread and sustained tax avoidance, both corporate and private, this government’s policies of austerity take on the appearance of a concerted attack on the living standards of the poorest members of society.
None of this is any news to anybody and my purpose here is not really to highlight the already flagrant abuse of power being perpetrated by Cameron, Osborne and their cronies, however repulsive and shocking I find their obvious and unbridled disdain for the working classes. Rather, reflecting upon what I see going on at home in the context of life in Kpetoe has forced me to radically reconfigure my definition of precarity and precarious life. Writing upon the places and spaces of precarity in the context of human geography Waite makes the important point that although precarity is a term, if not reserved for, then most often associated with the working poor of the most developed nations, in countries of the global south the condition of precarity has become so routinised and widespread as to constitute an unremarked upon and little considered norm (Waite, 2009, p. 419). In this sense, what we are coming to terms with as we move further and further from the Keynesian post-war social contract towards a Brave New Globalised World are a set of conditions which the poor throughout Africa, South and Central America, Asia have always had to contend with. In this sense we could reasonably say that precarity is nothing new, with its emergence of a precariat in Europe and North America marking only another stage in the development of neoliberal, globalised economies. What is remarkable, however, is that having long lived under a system which institutes not only their poverty but also their heightened vulnerability to the vagaries of changing markets, politics and (perhaps more pressingly should they farm) the weather, the weavers I work with have developed strategies, complex ways of working and being, which go some way to shielding them from the very worst sufferings associated with precarious life. They work long and hard, putting in up to ten hours a day at their looms and then more time tending their farms, selling at market and driving cabs, all the while keeping on top of the often arduous routine and mundane work of simply living. Their families rely upon them, there is no government instituted safety net and, with drought and famine within recent living memory, the premium placed upon feeding and caring for your family is extraordinarily high. In this way it would seem to me that patterns of work, diversification of labour activities and strong and complex networks of mutual assistance and support are developed which, to some extent at least, take the sharpest edges off of a precarious existence. I suppose an important part of my work here is to look closely at how these strategies work and to consider if they do in fact go any significant way to safeguarding the weavers’ wellbeing in a precarious environment, or if their vulnerability is just shifted elsewhere, postponed or whatever. What I find fascinating, however, is that out of conditions which I had preconceived of as being extremely precarious and vulnerable, the people I work with seem to create value and wellbeing, building their working and social lives in ways which not only merely satisfy their basic material needs, but make time for laughter and talk and generosity. There is a wealth in the way in which they work and live which I have never found at home and which has forced me to reconsider what precarity might actually be and whether the term is applicable here. I don’t really know where I stand on this issue yet and I am not trying to say that life for the weavers is somehow easier than it was for me last summer. What I do think is that the fear, anxiety and uncertainty which I feel characterise the experience of the young and precarious in the UK does not translate closely to the experience of the weavers here; their life feels much more secure, even if in its material conditions it’s poorer.
-Thank you to Jamie for reminding me of these issues and sending me such interesting stuff!