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The Flexible Person

Hundreds of millions of people are forced to work migration between countries and continents.. People turn into socially uprooted vagabonds of markets.. Flexibility as a rule means shifting the risk to dependent employees and delegating responsibility downwards: more output and more stress for less money
Other articles by Robert Kurz are available on www.mbtranslations.com and www.portland.indymedia.org. See also Thomas Gerlach's Critical Psychology.
The Flexible Person

The New Social Character in the Global Crisis Society

By Robert Kurz

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,

That the highly industrialized or even "post-industrial" world of the West increasingly has characteristics of the so-called third world has not been a secret for a long time. The countries of the capitalist periphery have not approached the social level of western welfare democracies. Rather the social deprivation spreads like a virus in the old capitalist centers. Systems of social security are gradually dismantled. Structural mass unemployment increases. A diffuse sector grows between regular employment and unemployment that was already familiar in countries of the third world.

This sector of drop-outs and uprooted in the world market vegetates on a poverty level under the official minority- and social apartheid society. The outpatient vendor at the curb, the youths cleaning car windshields at the intersections, the child prostitution or the system of semi-legal waste recovery up to the "garbage dump people" fall in this category. On a smaller scale, this phenomenon belongs to the everyday street picture even in the West, most clearly in Anglo-Saxon countries with their "classical" radical economic liberalism.

New mixed forms are developing between regular employment and precarious working conditions. The level of real wages has constantly fallen for twenty years (very dramatically in the US). The income from formal or accepted paid work no longer covers a "normal" standard of living with housing, car and health insurance. Additional irregular employment conditions must be accepted. Two or three jobs per person are almost the rule. After finishing work, the worker in a machine shop goes home to eat in order to subsequently work elsewhere as a night watchman. Only a few hours are left for sleep. On the weekend, he labors as a waiter in a restaurant, without a wage, only for the tips. The facade is maintained ever more strenuously at the price of his ruined health.

As another new kind of uncertain gainful biography, more and more persons must work below their abilities. They are "over-qualified" for their activity. Their knowledge is no longer accepted by the markets. An academic education was not a guarantee for a corresponding job since the beginning of the 80s with the microelectronic revolution and the heightened crisis of state finances. Many positions in the state realm were dismantled for lack of financing. On the other side, qualifications became outdated and devalued ever more quickly. The accelerated cycle of booms, innovations, products and fashions seized the culture, the social sciences and the elevated services, not only the technical areas. A growing part of the academic intelligentsia was degraded in this social process. The "perpetual student", the dropout student as vacation worker in primitive service activities and the 30-year old unemployed English teacher with a useless doctorate were not rarities any more.

The philosopher with a degree driving a taxi was the symbolic figure of a negative social career all over the western world. A new sub-milieu developed that went beyond the old Bohemians. Historians with degrees work in gingerbread plants; jobless high school teachers test themselves as babysitters. Superfluous lawyers market Indian cultural objects. Many persons with intellectual backgrounds roam around in diffuse quasi-student living conditions and fluctuate in their activities between jobs as delivery drivers, occasional journalists and unprofitable artistic experiments.

The question about position and career causes increasing embarrassment. In 1985, the two young authors Georg Heinzen and Uwe Koch published the cult novel "On the Uselessness of Growing Up". Its hero describes the new precarious attitude towards life: "I am not a father, husband or member in the automobile club. I am not a boss or authority person. I have no disposable credit. I am educated in spiritual things that are decreasingly emphasized. I am excluded from the circulation of offers... "

If this doubtful way of existence may have seemed a little exotic ten or fifteen years ago, it has become a mass phenomenon today. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck said that "the standardized system of employment begins to melt". The borders between work and unemployment are flowing. The slogans for the new fragmented and inscrutable system of employment are "flexibility" and plural under-development". No longer are only de-qualified and superfluous academic intelligentsia encountered in this ambiguous flexi-milieu. Former locksmiths, cooks, technical draftsmen, hairstylists, tailors or nurses have changed into multi-function underemployed without jobs.

Everyone does something different than what they learned or studied. Clear and self-evident abilities, occupations, careers, lifestyles and social status conditions belong to the past. Underemployment is more than merely that constant change between paid work and unemployment. Underemployment is the normal state for many millions of people in western industrial states. Underemployment is also the permanent alteration between nearly arbitrary qualifications, activities and functions - a kind of roller coaster ride through the social division of labor that changes with increasing speed under the pressure of the markets.

In the 80s, there were still hopes that the new tendency to the flexibility of working conditions could be turned around in an emancipatory way so that people would no longer follow rigid standardizations but would discover new possibilities of organizing life despite the social pressure. The flexible individual should become the prototype of a person no longer subject unconditionally to the pressures of paid work and the market by conquering a fund of time for independent self-determined conduct and free goals. The emphasis was on so-called "time pioneers" who gained "time sovereignty" for themselves to produce new forms of life beyond the capitalist machine cycle of foreign determined "work" and a "free time" oriented in goods consumption. These ideas recall the early writings of Karl Marx who predicted the end of the narrowing division of labor with a famous pictorial formulation for the communist future. "The division of labor shows us that human acts become subjugating foreign powers as long as the tension exists between the particular and the general interest. As work begins to be distributed, everyone has a certain exclusive circle of activity from which he cannot escape. However in communism society controls the general production and enables me to do this today and that tomorrow, hunting in the morning, fishing in the late afternoon, cattle breeding in the evening and criticizing after supper as I like without ever becoming a hunter, fisher, shepherd or critic... "

Unfortunately the old romantic picture of the young Marx has nothing to do with our new flexibilized reality. We do not live in a society with communist claims of setting out to new shores of social emancipation beyond the ruined bureaucratic state capitalism. Social optimists of flexibilization like Ulrich Beck and the French social philosopher Andre Gorz made their calculations without the farmer because they wanted to develop a new individual "time sovereignty" in peaceful coexistence with the capitalist mode of production. After all fundamental criticism of the dominant order was abandoned, there was also no possibility any more for filling the immanent social tendency in an emancipatory way. Therefore the battle around the social interpretation of flexibility was decided before it began.

The hopeful ideas of a supposed self-determination of lifetime in social niches only referred to certain forms of part-time work that should be subsidized by the welfare state according to Gorz' theory to guarantee a secure "basic income" in money and make possible freely chosen activities. This well-meant but toothless theory was from the beginning a mockery of the reality of people forced to two or three jobs almost around the clock under the pressure of increasing social dumping. That "split between particular and general interest" noted by Marx still exists, the blind competition on anonymous markets that is no longer put in question by theoreticians like Beck and Gorz.

The potential of increased productivity cannot be applied for a greater "time sovereignty" of people. Instead uninhibited neoliberal capitalism dictatorially defines flexibilization. Only its economic philosophy of lower costs at any price is helpful. Standardized work times will give way but not in the interest of employees. "Work on call" according to the orders situation and at irregular times spreads. Increased spatial mobility is demanded of workers against their own interests. Hundreds of millions of people are forced to work migration between countries and continents. Latinos migrate to the US in search of work, Asians to the Gulf-Emirate and eastern and southern Europeans to central Europe. In China and Brazil, there is enormous internal migration. Under the dictate of globalization, this tendency to the spatial mobility of workers has intensified and reaches the western centers. For example, German employment offices can force the unemployed to accept jobs a hundred kilometers from their home town and only "visit" their families on the weekend. Even senior staff employees must ever more frequently change their locations, countries and continents in the interest of their careers. People are transformed into socially uprooted vagabonds of markets.

The constant change between dependent and "independent" employment is also part of flexibilization. The borders between paid workers and entrepreneurs are blurred. More and more pseudo-independent persons arise in the impetus of "outsourcing", pseudo-entrepreneurs without their own business organization, their own working capital and without the renowned "entrepreneurial freedom". They depend on a single patron, usually their former firm that saves social security contributions this way and only pays for a direct work from case to case with "royalties" or "fees" considerably lower than the earlier salary instead of working hours according to scale.

Flexibility as a rule means shifting the risk to dependent employees and delegation of responsibility downwards: more output and more stress for less money. The company bond is loosened and the so-called collaborators are split into a condensed core staff whose company social benefits are cut or entirely eliminated and an increasingly precarious marginal state of the downsized stylized as "freelancers" or "portfolio workers". Within the core staff, the divisions are split into rival "profit centers". The integrative business culture has had its day. In his 1998 book "The Flexible Person", the US social historian Richard Sennett showed this logic of de-loyalization in the example of the IBM conglomerate. "During the years of downsizing and restructuring, IBM didn't have any trust any more in its remaining employees. They are no longer the children of the great firm but now depend on themselves."

Flexible capitalist individuals are not self-assured and universal but lonely individualized persons who are universally commercialized. The new risk responsibility produces fear rather than fun. One's own existence is a permanent engagement. General mistrust spreads. A paranoid entrepreneur culture arises in the climate of mobbing and persecution mania. Constantly alarmed and overstrained persons become sick and de-motivated. They are made increasingly superficial, unconcentrated and incompetent. Real ability needs time that the market doesn't have any more. The more quickly the demands change, the more unreal becomes the competence and the more learning turns into a mere consumption of knowledge that leaves behind nothing but data waste. Quality falls by the wayside. Attention becomes increasingly short-winded when I know that everything that I learn and appropriate laboriously will be worthless in the next moment.

However harassed and individualized employees who can still bluff their bosses, customers and one another become counter-productive. Capitalism does not solve its crisis with the total flexibilization but continues its crisis ad absurdum and proves that it can only unleash self-destructive energies.

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