French_students_iiToday, I learned a new word.  It might represent a new trend.   Call it precarity. 

It comes  to us swirling up from the student protests taking place in France.  (The PM of France, Dominique de Villepin, has introduced legislation that would make it easier for companies to fire young workers.  Students are unhappy and now voluble:)

As students and workers continue to occupy the Sorbonne and march through the streets of France, we will join them with our virtual bodies from around the world. SOLIDARITY WITH THE STUDENTS OF FRANCE! SOLIDARITÉ!

The reference to "virtual bodies" aside, this is pretty much "politics as usual" for the French.  What caught my attention is one the ideas at work here.   

[P]eople around the world are suffering from the system that the French students are protesting against. The neoliberal, corporate model of society increases the precarity of life for everyone through employment instability, war and environmental destruction. It must be stopped. Youth all over the world face bleak prospects under the current models. New economic and social models must be developed.

Precarity, huh?  Notice how elegantly it brings together three disparate topics (employment, war and environment) and bundles them so to recruit a larger body of protest.  (The fragmentation that makes life interesting for all of us is especially intense in youth cultures, and this makes it hard to establish consensus and mobilize action.) 

But what a strange little idea this is!  That life should not be precarious.  Wow.  If one idea has passed from currency, it’s the notion that liberal democracies can make life predictable and orderly.  The sheer force of dynamism in every aspect of contemporary life makes this unthinkable. 

But who knows, this might be the little idea that could.  Perhaps it will sew together acts of umbrage and outrage.  Perhaps it will mobilize students around the world.  In an odd way, it gets at the symptom of our contemporary condition most precisely.  Naturally, I can’t help feeling that when it moves French students to shut down parts of Paris, the notion of precarity is itself an agent of precarity.  But what do I know?  You can’t make a souffle without breaking a few eggs.

For more on the protest in France, and the source of materials quoted in this post, go here

9 thoughts on “Precarity

  1. dilys

    …and, that because new models have introduced precarity, new models must be developed.

    No one said it had to make sense.

  2. Pingback: The Owner's Manual

  3. Tom Guarriello

    Whatever its name, this idea is powerful: life has become increasingly unpredictable as a result of global capitalism’s ascendence as the sole socio-economic force since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nostalgically reaching back for security that never existed (afterall, my classmates and I hid under our desks at P.S. 119 in the Bronx to practice saving ourselves from a nuclear fireball) is understandable. Toffler’s description of this state still has relevance. Many of us feel the changes we’re now experiencing in our vestibular systems and the consequent nausea’s not real pleasant. The “Down With Precarity” movement is just one consequence. Seen the poll results concerning The Rapture lately?

  4. John

    If you look it up you’ll find that “precarity” isn’t a word in English, even though the French “precarité” makes it seem like there should be. The more careful English news reports talk about “precariousness” instead, but that’s nowhere near as sexy…

  5. Susann

    The notion of ‘precarity’ fits to what Fran Furedi sees as the basic assumption of ‘therapy culture’: the vulnerability of the self. ‘Therapy culture’ is Furedi’s construct to describe the contemporary disguise of Western popular culture. However, according to Furedi, in ‘therapy culture’ the individual feels isolated and problems that were regarded as problems of a community in former times are now perceived as individual problems. – So the French haven’t yet internalised therapeutical thinking? They developped their own type of (mass) therapeutics? They have too strong a sense of community?

  6. FXKLM

    The article you link to also uses the word precaritization. I find that much more amusing than precarity.

  7. Grant

    Dilys, yes, there is a glorious circularity to it, isn’t there? Thanks, Grant

    Tom, which is not to say, as you point out very well, this is not a real problem for which some response is necessary. Thanks, Grant

    John, exactly, where would postmodernism and certain political discourses be without these big powerful nouns pulling a great line of box cars behind them. Thanks, Grant

    Susann, as long as this doesn’t turn into another, “oh what an injustice the world has done me” I welcome it. We are living in a world of growing dynamism. There have to be better ways of thinking about thinking about it. Thanks! Grant

  8. Nate

    hi Grant,

    Good post, but some of the comments on terms strike me as wrongheaded. First, the implied argument by John (“If you look it up you’ll find that “precarity” isn’t a word in English”) is that the contents of the dictionary are the contents of the language. That doesn’t hold. Lexicography is a descriptive practice that follows behind the practice of other language users. The same goes for ‘precaritization.’ Granted, the terms are clunky and one can make objections to them, but to solely fixate on the clunky terms to the exclusion of addressing the contents of ideas is not in any way a laudable practice. Nor does a complaint about a term imply anything about the utility or validity of the concept garbed in an awkward phrasing.

    All that aside, Grant, I don’t think the aim is to make life not be precarious. The aim is to eliminate specific forms of precarity, like that which holds when labor law is liberalized – precarious access to work and wages – and when state provisioning of health and other welfare polices are liberalized – precarious access to healthcare, housing, etc. One could also add precarious access to or certainty of relatively safe environmental conditions. Some people in Europe, in Italy I think, were at one point talking about this via the neologism flexicurity, combining flexibility of arrangements with security of access to needed goods and services (usually defined as a set of rights). I don’t know if the term’s still in parlance as I haven’t followed the precarity stuff as closely recently.

    If folks want more on precarity, the wikipedia entry on it is reasonably good, and provides information on some of the different groups using and defining the term. It’s here –

    The entry has one inaccuracy that I know of, though, which is that it pegs the term’s beginning to the year 2000 in France. I know it was under discussion in activist circles in Spain in 1998, and I think probably sooner since documents tend to come after conversations begin.

    Best regards,

Comments are closed.