Unworthy work in Brazil

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The identification of a precariousness of work at the center of current capitalism was carried out by several contemporary European authors, but explained like no one else by Robert Castel

The work of authors such as Robert Castel stands out, above all, for its critical diagnosis, which is not limited to the mere reading of current events. This is the hallmark of great authors, who seek to predict the future from the limits and contradictions of the present. Castel emerges in a context in which European thought is faced with an unprecedented reality in the history of the continent: it is the scenario of the collapse of the welfare state, historical moment in which European democracies were idealized as the main achievement of capitalism. I won't go into detail here about what the Welfare, but Castel himself presents us with a definition of this political and economic regime that prevailed in countries like France, Germany and England for three decades, after the second world war, in the period that was baptized, not by chance, as Golden years. These are national contexts in which these countries witnessed considerable economic, political and social stability (CASTEL, 1998).

In terms of the economy, following Castel's brilliant definition here, this meant statistics that bordered on full employment. In the dimension of politics, it means full democracy, with active citizens. In the dimension of social life, it means security and social security (CASTEL, 1998). Naturally, this is an ideal plan that only actually existed in the government discourses in force at the time. But we cannot deny that in some concrete cases Europe has come very close to this ideal. In any case, one of the fundamental aspects that mark contemporary European thought, in which Castel is situated, is a certain nostalgia in relation to this it was golden previous. The common and undeniable fact seen in the work of Castel himself and authors such as Ulrich Beck (1997), André Gorz (2004) and Claus Offe (1994) – that is, that undignified work in central European countries is now here to stay – attests well to this new context. As unworthy work, I understand that type of activity that does not offer the minimum protection to either the body or the spirit, that is, that does not guarantee the minimum of material and moral integrity for those who carry it out. With this, the concept of unworthy work empowers us to understand more deeply the reality that is usually thematized with the concept of precarious work, which only describe unpleasant work situations, without being able to explain their moral dimension of humiliation and denial of recognition (MACIEL, 2006). Thus, the concept of unworthy work also seeks to account for the minimum condition of dignity necessary for any individual in the modern world to have respect and self-esteem.

In this context, however, the conformation of a “conjunctural precariousness of work” (MACIEL, 2014) in the traditional center of capitalism presents itself as an important gateway to understanding the present and the future, insofar as it is a central aspect of the new global risk capitalism. Here, ideas such as precariousness and precariousness, current in the sociology of work both in Brazil and abroad, can be good allies in helping to thematize objective and macrostructural conditions of work that are unfair and arbitrary. The concept of unworthy work, however, seeks to articulate such dimensions of objective life with the subjective dimension of suffering and the perception of social injustice. That capitalism produced a dependent and structurally precarious periphery has long been nothing new in the sociology of work, whether in Brazil or in central countries. As a result, the realization of the indignity of work at the center of capitalism (something not prescribed in its history) offers us a good gateway to understanding the future.

However, this finding would be unproductive for the interests of a sociological theory on the periphery if it were not articulated to “our unworthiness”, produced by a long-standing global system, but with consequences that are paid only by us. This exercise involves the articulation between a “new precariousness” at the center of capitalism and an “old precariousness” on its periphery (MACIEL, 2014). The contemporary reality experienced by countries such as France, Germany and England can be defined as a “conjunctural precariousness of work”, insofar as it has not yet affected the deeper social structures of those societies, forming part of a new global context, in which A “structural precariousness of work” and a “generalization of indignity” still prevail in peripheral countries such as Brazil.

Reading authors such as Robert Castel would be of no use to us if it did not provoke this type of reflection and articulation. The often uncritical and unproductive importation of authors from central countries has always been a reality in Brazilian social sciences. To avoid this type of problem, it is necessary to say it with all the letters because an author from the center must be read and used in the periphery. The reception of Castel's work in Brazil is still quite timid, in this sense. His concept of “social disaffiliation” (CASTEL, 1998) is relatively well known and reproduced in our sociology of work, but it has never been used for a systematic theoretical articulation about “disaffiliation” or, to be more precise, “non-affiliation”. on the periphery, of significant portions of the population.

This seems to be a fruitful direction for the reception of this author among us. His criticism of the concept of exclusion makes it clear that using it to define the social situation of the popular classes would be imprecise, as the concept is already committed to other situations of social inequality, other than those specifically related to not being linked to the labor market. decent and productive work. The concept of “social disaffiliation”, in this direction, suggests the need to understand the historical and current processes that did not allow and do not allow our popular classes to be inserted in places considered productive and dignified in our moral hierarchy of work.

In view of this, it is necessary to problematize what I call a “double precariousness of work in Brazil” (MACIEL, 2014, 2018). The identification of a precariousness of work at the center of current capitalism, which I define as conjunctural, was carried out by several contemporary European authors, but explained like no one else by Robert Castel. With the concept of social disaffiliation, he teaches us that it is an ongoing process of social construction of indignity. The current European reality, explained by Castel with this concept, witnesses a process in which the labor market considered useful and productive has purged people and, on the other hand, does not create new conditions for their reinsertion, which is also not done by politics.

This new European scenario requires the conceptualization of a “new capitalism”, as defined by Richard Sennett (2006). The global dimension of this new capitalism was very well highlighted by Ulrich Beck (2007) as being a global risk society. All of these great authors allow us to perceive that the problematization of contemporary Brazilian inequality needs to consider the extent to which Brazil today reproduces patterns of production and reproduction of inequality that have become universal under capitalism. Among them, we can highlight the working conditions and relations that today become flexible, again following Richard Sennett (2006). The entire productive and technological restructuring, in this sense, makes all relationships and working conditions around the world fragile and unpredictable, which is much more chronic in countries like Brazil.

In this way, it is necessary to conceptualize a “double precariousness” of work in contemporary Brazil, insofar as it is structural and conjunctural at the same time (MACIEL, 2014, 2018). It is not new that Brazil has as its central feature a structural precariousness of work. Since the implantation of the modern work society among us, in the Vargas era, what we witness is the partial establishment of the path to decent work for the popular classes. In this sense, relations and working conditions in Brazil have always been “precarious”, that is, they have always been far from the ideal of decent work for all. Decent work here can also be defined as work that does not offer stable bonds, social security and, consequently, ontological security to those who depend on it. This sad legacy has always been the reality of the popular classes in Brazil, which means to say, with Castel's words that, unlike the French, English or German cases, in Brazil a portion of the popular classes You are never was affiliated to the labor market considered productive and dignified.

With the advent of the new capitalism, unworthy, flexible and precarious all over the world – in which the giants of technology and their limitless power are already presenting themselves as the face of an unpromising future – the countries of the periphery witness a radicalization of their precariousness historical. This is the profound meaning of what I am calling double precariousness: the social disaffiliation that is now being established throughout capitalism deepens and radicalizes conditions and labor relations that have always been degraded in the periphery. In other words, Brazil has as a central feature of its history the non-affiliation of a significant part of its popular classes to the labor market considered worthy and productive. Thus, in the current scenario, we witness, at the same time, disaffiliation and non-affiliation to decent work produced by the generalized precariousness of the new capitalism.

With this, we can visualize the dimension of a political sociology in the work of Robert Castel, as well as its possible operationalization for a critical sociology of the periphery of capitalism. His concept of social disaffiliation leads us to situations of vulnerability and social insecurity, determined by an individual condition of not belonging to the productive labor market, through the execution of some dignified work. This critical diagnosis enables and requires the creation of concrete proposals regarding the State's responsibility to defend society against inequality. A theoretical advance in this direction can derive from Castel's (2008) concepts of “positive” and “negative” discrimination.

With the concept of “negative” discrimination, he describes and analyzes situations of discrimination that involve the stigmatization of the individuals in focus, in relation to their origin or social condition, both by society's values ​​and by State action in their benefit (CASTEL, 1998). Positive discrimination, on the other hand, is an idea that refers to an attitude of identifying special conditions of individuals who are in need, in face of which the State can and must act. It is “positive” in the sense of recognizing special needs, whether related to ethnic, gender, class or other conditions. It is also simply “discrimination” in the sense of identifying the existence of people who require special attention from the State.

In this way, combating the effects of disaffiliation and social non-affiliation can and should come from both society and the State. In the first dimension, it requires breaking with meritocratic values ​​and with the mistaken mentality of believing in the abstract and automatic power of the market. This kind of mental attitude is especially necessary in countries like Brazil, where the social effects of the new capitalism and the generalization of indignity are even more perverse than in other countries. With regard to State action, policies to support and stimulate the popular classes must be expanded, if guided by "positive" discrimination, in the sense of recognizing and facing the undignified condition of thousands of workers who are find themselves, at this very moment, not by their own will, separated from the possibility of a productive and dignified insertion in the labor market and, consequently, from the condition of citizens recognized as such.

* Fabricio Maciel and pProfessor of Sociological Theory at the Department of Social Sciences at UFF-Campos and at the Graduate Program in Political Sociology at UENF.

Modified version of the article “Social exclusion or disaffiliation? Robert Castel and a political sociology for the periphery of capitalism”, originally published in the dossier “Localidades docapitalista”, organized by Edson Farias (UnB) and Fabrício Maciel (UFF), in the magazine third millennium (UENF), v. 12, nº 1, 2019. Thanks to Mariana Mont'Alverne Barreto Lima for her suggestion for writing the text in this format.


BECK, U. (2007) Schöne neue Arbeitswelt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

______. (1997). Was ist Globalisierung? Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

CASTEL, R. (2008). Negative discrimination: citizens or natives? Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.

______. (1998). Metamorphoses of the social question. A salary chronicle. Petropolis: Voices.

GORZ, A. (2004). Miseries of the present, wealth of the possible. So Paulo: Annablume.

MACIEL, F. (2018). The generalization of precariousness: work and classes in contemporary capitalism. In: Society and State, Brasilia, v. 33, nº3.

______. (2014). The new world society of work: beyond center and periphery? São Paulo: Annablume publishing house. (2nd edition in press, publisher Autografia, Rio de Janeiro, 2021)

______. (2006). 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.

OFFE, C. (1994). Disorganized capitalism. Sao Paulo: Brasiliense.

SENNETT, R. (2006). The corrosion of character. Personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. Rio de Janeiro: Record.


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