The new rationality of the world and the formation of the precariat

Image: Artem Makarov


The constitution of a new category of workers is a direct result of the social and political project in accordance with the foundations of the “new reason for the world”

This article aims to discuss how neoliberalism works as a new reason. The neoliberal model can be understood as a rationality that seeks to influence the behavior of individuals and societies to follow a certain political and economic project.

The discipline of the workforce plays an important role within a capitalist mode of production. Its main interest is the exploitation of labor, oriented towards maximizing profit. From this, we seek to think about how this discipline respects an ideological conception that seeks to adapt the individual to a social structure. This adaptation of individuals is a way of controlling the workforce, directing it according to market demands.

Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, in The new reason of the world discuss the societal project defended by neoliberalism based on the impacts on productive activities, changes in the world of work and the consequences for human beings.

To understand the emergence of the precariat, we will use the work of English sociologist Guy Standing, The precariat: the new dangerous class.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, we have seen the dismantling of social rights across the world. Where the working class is being penalized with political measures that have deteriorated salary income, making their working conditions and way of life precarious. Society has been the victim of a worrying neoliberal offensive, which has acted in favor of private interests. This has generated social unrest in several sectors affected by the crisis and fiscal adjustments.

In Brazil, in 2016, with the approval of Constitutional Amendment No. 95, known as the “PEC of the spending ceiling”, a new fiscal regime was established that freezes social spending in areas such as Health and Education and, the labor reform, sanctioned for 20 years. by Michel Temer, on July 17, 2017. We follow the flexibilization of labor laws and the institution of intermittent work.

Thinking about the foundations that structure the neoliberal discourse is an opportunity to understand its functioning and practical effects that directly affect the daily lives of the working class. Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval (2016) offer some analytical tools that help us in the task of trying to politically understand neoliberal rationality, as well as its nature as a social and political project.

According to Dardot & Laval (2016), neoliberalism would function as a form of management. It would be a rationality applied to company management, unemployment, precariousness, debt and evaluation. Always seeking to encourage inter-individual competition. Furthermore, it would play an important role in defining new modes of subjectivation in individuals. The authors state that “neoliberalism does not just destroy rules, institutions, rights”, its practical objective is to produce “certain types of social relations, certain ways of living, certain subjectivities”.

This means that even our existence can be managed, in the sense of being “led to behave, to relate to others and to ourselves” according to what is imposed by rationality. Thus, this way of managing the social world, in addition to achieving social relations of production, encompasses our human existence within a model of social organization that aims to transform life into merchandise.

Neoliberalism needs to be understood not only as a response to the crisis of accumulation. It is also a response to a crisis of “governability”. Governability is used to adapt ways of life and mentalities to the project. Adaptation must be permanent, since “neoliberalism rests on a double observation”. The first is that “capitalism created a period of permanent revolution in the economic order”. The second believes that individuals “do not adapt spontaneously to this changing market order”. You will need to convince them.

Adaptation is one of the key elements in understanding how this conviction works. Rationality permanently seeks the individual's adaptation to the market. The individual who does not adapt is a failure for the system. Ultimately, neoliberal governmentality aims to convince that “each individual should function as a small company”. Thus, the adapted individual starts to organize his life as if it were a “permanent and multiple company”. The individual company has competition as a structuring value in their socialization and relationships with other individuals.

Within the logic of governmentality and the individual's adaptation to the business management way of life, Dardot & Laval (2016) show that the market works “as a process of self-formation of the economic subject”. This process is “subjective, self-educating and self-disciplining”, so that “the individual learns to conduct himself”. In this way, the subject is constructed by the market in an atomized and individualized way. We can therefore understand that this subject socialized by neoliberalism is the precariat. Where, its adaptation to rationality is revealed in the image of the entrepreneur who governs himself. He has the freedom to “self-govern”.

In the neoliberal vision, freedom of action is what each person has to develop their faculties, learn, correct themselves and adapt. Here, the subtlety of the market is presented. Characterized as a process of formation of oneself for oneself, the market, before individuals, can be understood as a learning process where “we educate ourselves to govern ourselves as entrepreneurs” to see society “as a free space for entrepreneurs” , thus, “all human relationships can be affected by this business dimension”. In other words, the subject's humanity is built based on the model of a private company (DARDOT & LAVAL, 2016).

The great turning point of neoliberalism was “to force individuals to govern themselves under the pressure of competition”, obeying “the principles of maximizing calculation” carrying out its last commandment: the “valorization of capital.” The neoliberal strategy is clear in its interests. It was through speeches, practices and devices of power that she consolidated the political conditions that managed to put her political and economic project into practice, to the point of modifying economic rules and social relations. (Dardot & Laval).

The adaptation of individuals to market rationality is nothing more than an attempt to discipline the workforce. Looking to lower the cost of work and increase productivity. It was from these social conditions that the precariat emerged. He represents the new subject produced by the flexibility of the labor market and changes in the political and economic sphere.

The formation of the precariat is the result of structural changes that occurred in the world of work throughout the 20th century and which deepened at the beginning of the 21st. Its increase means a civilizational setback that has deteriorated the living conditions of workers.

David Harvey (1992) perceives the current trend of shifting jobs to the service sector could contribute to the increase in income inequality among workers and encourage a “new aristocracy of work” and the “emergence of a social underclass” of workers and “poorly paid and completely powerless” workers. This helps to understand that the constitution of a new category of workers is a direct result of the social and political project in accordance with the foundations of the “new reason for the world”.

David Harvey's reference leads us to think of this subclass as the precariat. One way to understand this social group according to Guy Standing (2017) would be to notice how people increasingly perform insecure forms of work, which probably did not help them develop a desirable social identity or build a career. Thus, the subject who experiences a flexible and precarious productive life carries some social marks, manifested through anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation.

The social conditions of precarious individuals are marked by job insecurity, as they live with anxiety and fear of losing what they have. Which turns them into people with “an insecure mind”, who are “stressed, and at the same time “underemployed” and “overemployed””. Furthermore, “they are alienated from their jobs and their work, and their behavior is anomic, uncertain and desperate.” Thus, individuals, who fear losing what they have are constantly frustrated. This frustration leads to anger and fear.

The mind of the precariat is configured and motivated by fear. Guy Standing (2017) adds, based on the analysis of the social and moral foundations of neoliberal rationality, that it would be possible to affirm that the “mixture of increasing anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation encompasses the inevitable insolent side of a society that has made “ flexibility” and insecurity the cornerstones of the economic system.” Added to this, we find the social bases of a social system that promotes competitiveness, meritocracy and flexibility.

The precariat must be seen as a social group that is gradually organized around a neoliberal political project. Even though Dardot & Laval (2016) noted that collective action has become more difficult because individuals are subject to a regime of competition that affects practically everyone at all levels of their life. The rebelliousness of the precariat seeks to move towards other bases of political organizations and class entities.

The neosubject can be thought of as a precarious worker, also called precariat by some sociologists of work. In fact, the term, as Guy Standing (2017) demonstrates, is a neologism that combines the adjective “precarious” with the noun directed at “proletariat”. This social group, according to the author, cannot yet be understood as a class-for-itself, that is, in the sense of having a political project for the group. Well, it would still be a class-in-formation that mobilizes timidly.

According to Guy Standing, one of the main problems for the formation of bonds of solidarity indispensable for collective action, derives from the fact that “the precariat does not feel part of a solidary labor community”. This element “intensifies a feeling of alienation and instrumentality” in social practices, which ends up opening space for “actions and attitudes derived from precariousness” to tend towards “opportunism”. However, “it is not correct to see precariousness strictly through its unpleasantness.” In most cases, the “individuals attracted to it are looking for something better than what was offered in industrial society.” These are people who “deserve the name victim more than hero”. But some movements are “beginning to show why the precariat can be a harbinger of a good 21st century society.”

However, for these social relationships to materialize, people will need to have empathy, that is, the ability to project themselves into another's situation. This is no small matter, as feelings of empathy and competition are in constant conflict within the neoliberal order. Competition between workers is a way of denying empathy because the feeling of competition produces “fear of failure” or of achieving “only a limited status” (STANDING, 2017). Thus, empathy will be an important factor in the constitution of the precariat as a politically organized social group.

A situation that has already occurred in the past when professional communities were encouraged by empathy, “with learning representing a primary mechanism for building an assessment of reciprocity” creating a favorable context to reinforce the “rules of self-regulation.” When the feeling of empathy weakens the bonds of solidarity, the possibilities of building a social memory will also be compromised.

It is a characteristic of our humanity if we define ourselves by what we do and who we are. So, “social memory arises from belonging to a community reproduced over generations. In a society marked by flexible employment and precarious work, it becomes increasingly complex to build a “social memory” necessary for the construction of social identity. In other words, social memory “at best […] provides a code of ethics and a sense of meaning and emotional and social stability (STANDING, 2017).

The emergence of the precariat is inherent to the contradictions in the relationship between capital and labor. Because of this, its political mobilization is an important stage in the process of confronting the actions of plundering social rights and lowering wages.

The processes of resistance to structural changes caused by capitalism result from their own contradictions. With this, the precariat emerges as a category of analysis that helps to think about the situation of the working class in the current moment of development of the productive forces. Its emergence as a social group imposes new challenges on organization and collective action in defense of its interests within the relationship between capital and labor.

In this way, the precariat represents a (de)mobilized and (de)politicized working class, but which moves despite the “corrosion of social ties” that translate into “questioning generosity, fidelity, loyalty, solidarity, of everything that is part of social and symbolic reciprocity in the workplace.” (Dardot & Laval, 2016).

In summary, we saw that Dardot and Laval (2016) teach us that it is necessary to think of neoliberalism as a rationality. In this way, understanding him politically, or better yet, sociologically, presupposes understanding the nature of his social and political project. In Guy Standing (2017), we seek to show that the new reason for the world uses market competitiveness to seek growth and development based on precarious work and flexible employment. The consequence of this is increased insecurity and instability in people's lives. Therefore, everything must “be done to maximize competition and competitiveness” and to “allow market principles to permeate all aspects of life”.

In other words, the functionality of neoliberal rationality through its institution – market – aims to transfer the risks and costs of work to workers. In this way, “managing risk instead of building a career” (STANDING, 2017), perhaps, is one of the striking characteristics of the precariat and the transformation of the world of work in the XNUMXst century.

At the moment, young people make up a significant portion of the precariat, who have been systematically suffering from changes in the world of work. A situation “aggravated by its alienation from the main mechanism for venting frustration and exercising one’s voice in negotiating a less precarious future” (STANDING, 2017).

“How much will the precariat protest?” A question that, at the same time as it leads us to hope, also produces doubts about the future. In the book Ordinary (2017) Dardot and Laval point to the path of establishing a new political reason to replace neoliberal reason. So, “we can say with certainty” that “a long period of upheavals, confrontations and upheavals is opening before us.” (DARDOT; LAVAL, 2017). The common could be the political principle that will guide the mobilizations of the precariat throughout the XNUMXst century.

*Caio Henrique de Almeida is a sociology professor in the public school system in the state of Minas Gerais.


DARDOT, P; LAVAL, C. The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

DARDOT, P; LAVAL C. “Postscript on revolution in the 21st century”. In: Common: essay on revolution in the XNUMXst century. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

HARVEY, D. “The political-economic transformation of capitalism at the end of the 20th century”. In: The postmodern condition; research into the origins of cultural change. São Paulo: Loyola, 1992.

STANDING, G. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Belo Horizonte: Authentic.

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