The Specter of Unworthiness

Gustave Callaibotte (1848-1894), "Floor Scrapers".


Precarious work as a “socially disqualified” job, therefore, unworthy

A specter haunts most of today's global population and already affects a large part of it. This is the spectrum of unworthiness. Since my master's research, with car washes, I came across one of the most intriguing questions of my life and one that somehow led me to all my further studies. Observing the appalling working conditions of those materially poor men, most of them black, the old saying that “all work is worthy” soon came to mind. Based on readings such as those by Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor, with their well-known theories on social recognition, as well as on the work of Jesse Souza on Brazilian sub-citizenship, I quickly came to the conclusion that there could not be a more accurate saying in modern societies. fallacious than this.

In that research, I realized that car washers, practically an ideal type of what the sociology of work calls precarious workers, in addition to performing a type of work that I have since come to define as “undignified” (MACIEL, 2006), also experienced , as a consequence, an unworthy social and existential condition. With this, I tried to define precarious work as “socially disqualified” work. The reasons for this are due to the reasons and social dynamics that determine the status of the unworthy worker. In terms of economics, all the authors that I analyzed here in this book, whose revised second edition I now present to the public, are unanimous in understanding that the increase in precarious work, which I propose to call undignified, is the great mark of a new global capitalism since the fragmentation of welfare state Europe in the 1970s.

In terms of morality, which attributes meaning to social life, we need to understand the agreements that, based on economic inequality, determine and legitimize the status of unworthy work and consequently of existential indignity. I propose that we call precarious work “unworthy” for a very simple reason: the notions of “precariousness” and “precarious work” are already among those elastic concepts that seem to cover all of reality in an evident way. They are used exhaustively by a large part of the global and Brazilian sociology of work as if they explained by themselves the structural reasons and the subjective prejudices of the type of work they seek to define. In fact, the notions of precariousness and precarious work only describe bad work situations, conditions and relationships.

On the other hand, the idea of ​​decent work seeks to solve two problems. First, it takes us back to work conditions and situations that, on a day-to-day basis, call into question much of what we consider “human dignity”. In the case of car washers, a situation that can be easily analytically generalized to other profiles of unworthy workers, their physical exposure on the streets, as well as the nature of a physically exhausting job itself, threatens their physical and moral preservation. It's hard to imagine a top executive, the subject of my current research, walking around shirtless and carrying buckets of water in the middle of the center of a big city. Their moral integrity, that is, their dignity, would obviously be threatened. This is exactly what happens to our undeserving workers.

The second problem to which we are referred with the concept of unworthy work has to do with the condition of instability and material vulnerability to which these people are permanently exposed. The absence of a fixed salary and stable employment ties calls into question the possibility of supplying the most basic material needs. As a consequence, what is at stake in our meritocratic society is the individual capacity to provide himself with the minimum necessary for a good life, both materially and morally.

I also tried to define unworthy work as synonymous with socially disqualified work, in the sense that, in addition to formal disqualification, derived from the absence of diplomas, certificates and knowledge recognized as socially useful, this type of work is morally disqualified through intersubjective stigmas. By that, I mean that the meaning of each occupation in the social division of labor depends on the intersubjective confrontation between them, that is, on the meaning that each society attributes to its moral hierarchy. This social dynamic directly depends on the degree of economic inequality experienced by each national society. It is in this intersubjective dynamic that each relational occupation receives its status differentiated. In this sense, who best understood the relationship between status, power and prestige was Wright Mills, in his classic studies on the new middle class and the elite in the United States of the 1950s (MILLS, 1975, 1976).

In other words, in a society with serious economic inequality such as Brazil (or Mexico, or any other similar one), a top executive has an infinitely greater social value than a car washer. It is in the very dynamics of everyday social life, in the relational confrontation between occupations that their prestige, power and status determine each other. I mean that, in a society like Brazil, whose hallmark has always been the structural abyss between classes, a top executive is considered by his family, by his neighbors, by his colleagues and by himself as a “superman”, a great winner who, after a lot of personal commitment, complied with all the rules of the meritocratic agreement and therefore deserves all the prestige and recognition. On the other hand, a lowly car washer is considered a loser, someone who didn't try hard enough, who didn't want to go further. They even think that about themselves, as I unfortunately found in my research, that is, they internalize the moral agreements of their society.

Already in my doctoral research, origin of the thesis and the book that the reader now has in hands, I tried to advance the debate on the society of work through another path. a little bit of Making off my doctoral experience may help to understand the empirical and theoretical movement that gave rise to the thesis and the consequent book. During my doctorate, I went on a sandwich stay in Germany, in the beautiful city of Freiburg, as a DAAD/CAPES scholarship holder, in 2011. When I arrive in Germany, the things that impress me the most are the infrastructure and quality of life in the city. population, even knowing, through theory, that the increase in unworthy work was already a reality there. Naturally, I couldn't help but see the indignity of the homeless, who are overwhelming in numbers, especially in train and subway stations in big cities like Berlin and Stuttgart.

When I arrive in Freiburg, in southern Germany, I come into contact with the work of Professor Uwe Bittlingmayer, a critic of Bourdieu, a scholar of critical theory and the subject of the knowledge society. These aspects, combined, were the reason for our academic and intellectual approach. In his study group, I came into contact with the discussion on the knowledge economy, in addition to the subject of the knowledge society. This ended up generating one of the chapters of this book, precisely because of my observation that scientific, technological and specialized knowledge has become an ambiguous social force of the new globalized capitalism, as I have tried to show.

At the same time, the author who impressed me the most during that period was Ulrich Beck, which is evident in the book. What most calls attention in his work is its provocative tone and its ambiguity. Ulrich Beck is undoubtedly the greatest German sociologist of his generation, which is reflected in his work and influence in the German and European public sphere. For my purposes, the most productive part of his work was his critique of methodological nationalism (MACIEL, 2013), to which I not by chance dedicated the first chapter of the book, which opens the entire discussion. This is due to the fact that, as soon as I arrived in Europe, one of the first things I thought was that I needed to somehow face the current relationship between the center and the periphery of capitalism. To do so, it would be necessary to stop thinking about work societies in the plural, as if each one were responsible for its own destiny and guilty of its own mistakes. At the same time, reading authors like Wallerstein already made clear the urgency of thinking critically about a world-system, in which center and periphery are pieces that fit asymmetrically into a single gear.

Returning to Ulrich Beck, his work became important for this debate due to his involvement, from the 1990s, with the theme of work, after his well-known theses on risk society and reflective modernity. For me, his most provocative and ambiguous work was his book Schöneneue Arbeitswelt[I](BECK, 2007), in which he launches his well-known thesis of the “Brazilization of the West”, to which I dedicated a critique, in chapter 4. I focused my critique on this thesis for a number of reasons. First, because Ulrich Beck is the most courageous and provocative European author I have read. He clearly spells out a Europeanism in which many intellectuals believe, but few assume. His work is ambiguous because it is critical of social inequality within the confines of the European social imaginary.

With regard to the theme of work, it presents the novelty and the advantage of trying to think about the periphery, in that book, what happens after a visit to Brazil, which leaves you terrified in the face of the structural dimension of our unworthy work. Hence the core of his thesis: Germany and Europe would be “Brazilizing” themselves with the unprecedented increase in informal and precarious work. Even if his analysis is descriptively correct, his interpretative and consequently political problem resides in the fact of ignoring the global system that produced the structural condition of unworthy work in countries like Brazil, a problem that only now, even in a conjunctural way, with the failure of welfare state, affects core countries such as Germany. Hence my criticism that he himself does not escape the methodological nationalism that he has sought to criticize on other occasions.

Another important author in this discussion is Claus Offe, for his well-known questioning about the centrality of the work category for contemporary social theory. I tried to reconstruct their discussion beyond the simple question of whether or not we live in a society of work. His issue is that work no longer offers social integration to European societies as it did during the 30 golden years of the welfare. What we can do based on this, a task that goes far beyond the author, is to question whether work has ever offered social integration in peripheral societies such as Brazil. In addition, it remains to think about what would be the notion of viable work to thematize current changes both in the center and on the periphery of capitalism. As already argued, I prefer the concept of undignified work, instead of the elastic notions of precariousness and precarious work, widely used in an almost natural way by a large part of the literature on the subject.

Finally, the last decisive author for the discussion I carried out in the book was Robert Castel. He is undoubtedly the most critical of the authors discussed here, for not abandoning or trivializing the idea of ​​a work society. Castel carried out a far-reaching genealogical reconstruction of what he called the “salary society”, whose culmination was the welfare state countries like France and Germany. The great importance of his undertaking lies in understanding the positive meaning of a society in which most people have a stable job and a guaranteed salary. That is, a society in which decent work was guaranteed for the majority of the population, being its most fundamental economic and moral basis. With the bankruptcy of Welfare, Castel will diagnose a process of “social disaffiliation”, with which the market will purge a growing number of people without creating opportunities for reintegration. With this, we have a growing “vulnerability zone” in capitalism, in which the “disposable” and socially unaffiliated are found, that is, what Jessé Souza will define in Brazil as “rabble”.

Castel is obviously talking about the condition of indignity I referred to at the beginning. He uses terms like vulnerability and disposability, in addition to the term precariousness, to talk about this reality that I prefer to call “indignity”. Richard Sennett (2015), in turn, will speak of the “ghost of uselessness”, to refer to the same situation. I consider all these terms more descriptive than analytical. I suggest, on the other hand, that we speak of a condition or a status negative of indignity, because only with this term can we clearly refer to the material and moral damages suffered by people who find themselves in such a situation. In material terms, the notion of indignity refers to permanent risk and real situations in which the minimum for survival and physical well-being is not guaranteed. In moral terms, it leads us to objective stigmas, disrespect and the subjective feeling of abandonment, despair and failure. The two dimensions of unworthiness determine each other.

I would now like to make an important clarification. The first versions of the thesis and the book were written between 2011 and 2014, during the PT governments in Brazil, that is, in a different political context than what we are experiencing now. Therefore, some parts of the book reproduced the context of the discussion about the rise of a new working class in Brazil (or new middle class, for some authors). In this 2nd edition, I removed or modified some excerpts from the original text that somehow reproduced this discussion without obviously being able to predict what would happen next. That is, part of the discussion needs to be updated, considering that a large number of “emergents” from the previous context (almost 40 million Brazilians), who had ascended to what is conventionally called “class C”, has now returned to the condition of indignity prior to PTism.

In this sense, it is important for us to be clear about the difference between the “conjunctural” changes and the “structural” changes in both Brazilian and global society in recent years, as well as the dynamic and open relationship between the two. In the current Brazilian situation, after the coup d'état that removed Dilma Rousseff from the presidency of the republic, in 2016, we have already witnessed, in a short period, the intensive increase of indecent work and the perennial indignity of those who do not find any work. In this context, the labor reform approved in 2017 is located in a specific context that carries out changes in a larger structural context. The reform, as is public knowledge, legally disarms workers in face of negotiations with employers. It also institutionalizes outsourcing and informality at all levels and in all forms of activity, that is, it naturalizes, legitimizes and institutionalizes the condition of indignity of millions of people.

This context of intensifying the indignity of work goes against the grain of everything we can learn from the best authors about building a dignified work society for all. As we saw with Robert Castel, the strengthening of solid and stable work ties, consolidated in the very idea of ​​employment, took decades and was one of the central pillars of the welfare state and the construction of European democracies. Indeed, these are now in check precisely because of the unprecedented increase in modern history of undeserving work and status of indignity within. In other words, what we are witnessing right now in the world and more intensely on the periphery of capitalism is the institutionalization of non-wage societies, which is synonymous with unworthy societies.

Not by chance, the controversial legal basis of the labor reform in Brazil goes against all the basic principles of the welfare state, institutionalizing and legitimizing exactly the opposite of what Robert Castel suggested, that is, the expansion and strengthening of the right to work , which would even have explicit constitutional support. With this, it must be clear that the dignity of work and the right to decent work are in no way benefits granted by the market, but require well-oriented and effective action by the State.

In the classic formulation of Thomas Marshall, social citizenship, the last stage of the development of citizenship in societies like the English one (which is now also going backwards in this process), receives a simple and objective definition. For him, social citizenship meant achieving the right to a minimum of economic well-being and security, in addition to the right to share in the “whole of the social heritage” and to live the life of a “civilized being”, in accordance with the standards prevailing in society (MARSHALL, 1967). That is, social citizenship is the opposite of indignity. Not by chance, the role of the State was decisive for him in this direction. In his definition, the creation of the universal right to a real wage provided a situation of well-being contrary to market values ​​(MARSHALL, 1967).

The reality that we are now witnessing in the new world society of work explicitly contradicts this basic definition of social citizenship, which is worryingly presented in Europe, the former cradle of social capitalism, and desperately in peripheral countries such as Brazil, where the current situation only deepens our condition of structural indignity. Not by chance, meritocratic values, contrary to any idea of ​​dignity and citizenship, are at the heart of the discourse evoked by the extreme right strengthened in the world today, articulated to their real feelings of hatred and intolerance, contrary to the true ideal of democracy. The way back, in the face of this sad reality, must necessarily face the theoretical and political problem of indignity.

* Fabricio Maciel he is a professor of sociological theory at the Department of Social Sciences at UFF-Campos and at the PPG in Political Sociology at UENF.


Beck, U. SchöneneueArbeitswelt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2007.

MACIEL, F. The new world society of work: beyond center and periphery? 2nd edition, revised and enlarged. Rio de Janeiro: Autography, 2021.

______. “Is all work worthy? An essay on morality and recognition in peripheral modernity”. In: SOUZA, J. (Org.) The invisibility of Brazilian inequality. Belo Horizonte: EDUFMG, 2006.

______. “Ulrich Beck and the critique of methodological nationalism”. In: Politics & Society, Florianópolis, v. 12, no. 25, 2013.

MARSHALL, TH Citizenship, social class and status. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar editors, 1967.

MILLS, CW The power elite. 3rd Ed. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar editors, 1975.

MILLS, C. The new middle class. 2nd Ed. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar editors, 1976.


[I] A free translation of the title would be “Brave new world of work”, making an obvious allusion to the great classic by Aldous Huxley.

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