Journey through social precarity: sociologists in comparison. The thoughts of Guy Standing
According to the British sociologist* Guy Standing, the devastating effects of the pandemic constitute a crisis that has all the potential to turn into a true pandemic depression. The depth of the crisis reflects the fragility of the economic system that has been forged in four decades of globalization, better described as rentier capitalism. This has made the global system particularly fragile in the face of shocks and is bound to worsen the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Welfare state capitalism according to Polanyi
Standing backs up his judgment with a historical reminder: «Society as a whole is in a key transformational moment which reminds us of the economist Karl Polanyi’s thesis on the great transformation, which is more relevant than ever in today’s situation. Polanyi argued that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, international capitalism was dominated by finance and, more specifically, by finance capital; this situation had initiated a process of growing inequalities and insecurities which would have entailed, as a consequence, a genuine threat of the annihilation of civilization, which would have affected in particular the clear distinction and demarcation between economy and society. According to Karl Polanyi, an authentic “great transformation” of society would have been possible only by pursuing the objective of reincorporating the economy into the broader social progress process and organizing a welfare state capitalism, capable of moderating the extent of situations of insecurity and inequality». This model of capitalism, Standing points out, was partly realized in the following decades and substantially broke down in the 1970s with the start of a widespread international transformation marked by the construction of the so-called global market economy, promoted and also dominated culturally and politically by the neo-liberals and their “free market” agenda.
«My argument» says Guy Standing «is that from that time on, the entire evolutionary process of the global economic system has been based on a huge lie; that is, on the attempt to create a free market economy. The result demonstrates this because, in fact, in the current situation, we have the most unfair market economy system, the least free of those ever experienced in the world before and which can be defined as rentier capitalism».
A model of capitalism based on a progressive crumbling of the structure of the welfare state, to the point of its dissolution in some instances, with the disappearance of the main forms of protection for citizens; that is, with the linking of welfare services to methods oriented towards the control of social behavior (e.g., social assistance accompanied by behavioral tests, the introduction of punitive sanctions in welfare schemes, introduction and/or increases in service charges). The fact is that profiteering capitalism has created a very fragile global economic system, lacking robustness and resilience in the face of recurring financial crises.
In this context, the Covid-19 pandemic is bound to have an enormous and widespread long-term impact on the global economy.
The need for the adoption of basic income
To correct this situation and resume the objective of re-incorporating the economy into the broader process of social progress, one proposal that Standing supports is the adoption of a universal basic income as a measure capable of restoring adequate conditions of social, economic, and ethical equality. A basic income in the sense of a sum, even a modest one, but aimed at building minimum security conditions, paid equally to everyone, men and women, without constraints or special tests or checks, without telling them what to do or not to do. Such an instrument, which in the past was justified by essentially ethical principles of human solidarity, in the current situation of radical transformations brought about by the pandemic crisis is justified rather by the principles of widespread economic progress, social advancement, justice, and freedom.
Guy Standing: acting against the “eight Giants”
According to Guy Standing, to make a significant correction to the current system and create new conditions for balanced progress in its economic and social aspects, it is necessary to act against the Giants that mark the great social weaknesses created by rentier capitalism. Standing identifies eight of them: inequality, insecurity, state and families debt, stress, social insecurity, automation, the threat of extinction, and populism.
- Inequality: understood both as inequality of wealth and inequality of income, considering that the ratio between wealth and income has increased considerably in favour of the former, as shown, for example, by the fact that the financial wealth held by small groups of private operators has come to correspond to as much as 100% of the total national income of several states.
- Insecurity: when it becomes chronic, as in the case of a pandemic situation, it can reduce people’s mental horizon and their ability to act. It is a corrosive factor, which states have the task of reducing if they want their citizens to behave responsibly.
- The debt of states and families: the unprecedented debt reached in recent years, which is the non-accidental result of a system based on financial capital, is an element that generates irrational behavior. Millions of people now live on the brink of unsustainable debt: it is no coincidence that in 2020 in many states, household debt was almost 200% of national public income.
- Stress: a condition in which many people live during crises, which produces cancers and illnesses of various kinds and, on another front, generates negative and counterproductive social behavior, consequently damaging the resilience of the social system.
- Social insecurity: it is not only about the problems of unstable or occasional work; it is a wider phenomenon affecting the system of fundamental rights. It is, in fact, a social flaw that does not allow people to have, exercise and benefit from civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights.
- Automation: Artificial Intelligence and robotics use is leading to an increase in inequalities. This effect could only be corrected through State control of ethical issues related to AI.
- The threat of extinction: another stressful condition linked to the precarious environmental situation, the degradation of which threatens to cause the loss of values and goods of great importance.
- Populism: the “political monster” fostered and promoted by a society where precariousness and a sense of insecurity are widespread, where people are stressed, frustrated by conditions of inequality, and worried about their survival.
According to Standing «The basic income does not represent the only solution to all the problems previously illustrated and marked by what we have defined as the fight against the eight Giants but it is an essential component of a new forward-looking agenda that, for the coming years, defines the terms and the conditions for a real and balanced advancement of society».
*Guy Standing: Associate Research Professor, SOAS University of London Hon. Co-President, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Reference: SUPI European Network on Social Precarity 2022 (Berlin-Rome)
**Ida Nicotera, Eurispes International Dept.