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How Precarity Puts Capitalism on Edge
16th March 2021 • The Rhodes Center Podcast with Mark Blyth • Rhodes Center
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On this episode Mark talks with Albena Azmanova, IWM Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Studies in Vienna and author of ‘Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia’. In the book, Albena explains how precarity (not inequality) is the central driver of our current political, economic, and social woes. Mark and Albena explore the roots of economic precarity, the reasons it’s more dangerous and destabilizing than inequality alone, and why addressing it will require mixing tried-and-true economic policies with a radical rethinking of how our economy is structured.

You can learn more about Albena Azmanova's book here.


[THEME MUSIC] MARK BLYTH: Hello, everyone. My name is Mark Blyth, and I'm the director of the Rhodes Center. This is the Rhodes Center Podcast. In conversation today we have Albena Azmanova, IWM visiting fellow at the Institute for human studies in Vienna, and author of the wonderful book, Capitalism On Edge, How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis Or Utopia. Now that sounds like a big order and she tackles a lot in her book, but let me tell you why I find it so fascinating. People like me who write about the contemporary condition, usually think of inequality as the problem.

And Albena would not say that it's not a problem, but to use the Star Wars analogy, these are not the droids you're looking for. You see if inequality is the big bad boogie thing that we think it is, why is it that we're not in a revolutionary situation anyway? And why is it that if we look at this thing called populism and for the moment let's call it populism, it seems to be working more on the right than on the left.

What is it that the right offers people? This is something that people in the left and the kind of reformist side of things never really think about. Well we offer security, we offer stability, even if it comes in the form of hierarchy and nation, in a world which is increasingly unsettled, that's kind of attractive. And that's why the notion of precarity, having precarious work, precarious employment, a precarious life, really is the step that we need to take more seriously to understand what's going on beyond the brute facts of inequality themselves.

So with that as my wind up, let's start with this question, Albena, why did you write this book? And more importantly, why did you feel you had to write this book?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Thank you, Mark, it brings me back almost 10 years ago or more, when the European parliament approached me, that was Two-Thousand-Three, almost 20 years ago. To ask how come, despite good conditions of economic growth and unemployment back in the late 90s, early 21st century. The left was losing elections in Europe, what was going on? There was a rise of protest parties, not amidst the economic crisis like we are being told.

Now that the story is that, what drives anti-establishment sentiment is the economic crisis. No those parties and movements started to mobilize in conditions of good economic growth. The 90s were the most prosperous decade in the 20th century but we started to see anti-establishment mobilizations. So actually that book started with an excellent question that people who had to confront that problem wanted me to answer.

And I discovered that what was driving that anxiety amidst prosperity was a sense of unstable livelihoods. For instance, that is why the referendum for the European Constitution, the draft Constitution for Europe in Two-Thousand-Four. So before the economic crisis, there was this narrative against the Polish plumber, so the Polish plumbers are coming to get our jobs. So this fear of job loss, fear of the loss of livelihood, was undergirding the rising xenophobic sentiments.

I've been speaking about that as economic xenophobia. It takes the language of hatred of others, but it is really driven by, not by impoverishment, but by instability.

MARK BLYTH: So then what's causing the instability? We have prosperity, as you say, in those decades, this is before the crisis. What's propelling the sense of instability?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Well, there were two things going on. So the '90s were the decade when the latest wave of globalization really happened. Governments adopted the formula-- if you remember, before it was Smith abroad, Keynes at home. It became all Smith.

So the free market logic, opening of national economies to the global markets, plus the digitalization of the economy, that changed a lot the face of globalization. And as competition in the global markets increased, and that was coupled with the ideological consensus between the left and the right domestically on free market capitalism.

Then there was a subtle, but very important policy shift in priorities of government's. Competitiveness became the key word, not competition, competition is the key word for the neoliberal era, our era really prays to the God of competitiveness. Now in order to make your economy competitive, you have to do tricks like diminish the competition for specific actors, governments started to help national champions, to make them even more competitive in the global economy.

But as these powerful economic actors were helped and competition on them decreased, there was just less to do for the rest. So competition increased among the rest of the economic actors, this is how I see the landscape. So with increased competition everybody, but those hand-picked capitalists, everybody's position became more precarious.

The unemployed suffer because they cannot get into the labor market, the labor market insiders that we so envy, the people with the good jobs and good salaries, they can never leave the labor market because out of insecurity. So these seemingly opposing grievances have a common root in my analysis, and this is the increased competitive pressures on everybody.

MARK BLYTH: An example of this I'm just going to throw it out there for the listener, and if you want to comment on it, then great. And essentially you're telling a great macro version of the story that happened in Germany. So you had very much privileged insiders working in the export related industries, particularly the auto industries. And in order to boost that and make the growth model in this more globalized era, you got the Hartz labor reforms, which essentially wiped out the floor on minimum wages, at least temporarily, created a large service sector of poorly paid employment.

Which as you say is increasingly precarious, these are the types of jobs that, it's hard to hold down, you don't know your hours, there as the Germans called them, ein Mark job, right, one Mark jobs. And these are below minimum wage, and yet there are two million jobs in the economy.

So you're impoverishing many in order to boost the competitiveness of some. One of the things you talk about early on in the book that I really want to bring out here, and you just alluded to at the end, is the paradox of emancipation. Can you unpack that? Because it's such a great idea. And then I'm going to do a reading from the book, which I just think is brilliant. So you unpack it, then I'll read it.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: OK so as I was researching and discovering that precarity is the real malaise of our societies, all of a sudden I was hearing a talk all about inequality. So we were hearing from politicians and academics that inequality is the curse of our time. Even academic degrees in inequality studies started to be established. So I was thinking Oh my God, we have such a huge problem with massive precarity, and people fuss about that some have more than others, how come?

So I was really surprised, because inequality has always been a feature of capitalism. How come, at that particular point, we started to be so obsessed with inequality. So for me that was the puzzle. Now as a political theorist, I've written another book on judgment and justice. And I have observed that with the feminist struggles of the latest generation of feminism, as women we wanted to gain equality with men on the labor market.

They wanted in the labor market, and they wanted to be equal. They actually valorize, they put additional value on the rat race. On being in and competing. And that weakened the impetus of the working class to fight capitalism, to fight for, actually, less work, not more work. That's what I call the paradox of emancipation, that very often if we are fixated on concerns with entering in and being equal, equality and inclusion, not only that we overlook what's going on in this model, without the kinds of injustices that are produced outside, besides inequality and inclusion.

But we further validate, we value even more that club in which we want to be members.

MARK BLYTH: So this is very much like, again, something earlier in the book that you mentioned, which people have read, but have never really thought about, at least I haven't, which was the indignados slogan, that we are not against the system, the system is against us.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: That's right.

MARK BLYTH: It's a cry for inclusion within a system, which in and of itself because of its competitive logic, and its focus on competitiveness. Basically is a misery to you the minute you join, because there's no exits apart from it. If I can just read this because it really sums it up nicely. This is from the chapter on precarity capitalism.

The elimination of power inequalities within a system of social relations is valuable in its own right, but such efforts have tended to divert attention away from forms of domination rooted in the operative logic of the social system beyond the concern with equality and inclusion within that system. This is not an unfortunate oversight, it could be remedied easily. It is driven by a compelling logic, the insistence on inclusion and equality within a certain model of well-being, gives that model validity and vigor.

We have to value the world within which we seek inclusion and equality. And the harder of the struggle to achieve success and status within that world, the more that we value it. So this is the other side, when you think of precarity, we tend to think of labor markets becoming more fragile, zero hour contracts et cetera, all of which is there.

But you're also pointing out something else that I don't think anyone else has really pointed out. This runs all the way to the top, because no one gets to escape. Everyone, in a sense, is suffering the pressures of precarity, it's not just the bottom, it filters all the way up. Can you talk about that?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Exactly. Yes I really strongly believe that it is precarity, not inequality that hurts the 99%, that's the real grievance. And when you listen for instance to the yellow vests in France, as I did about their grievances, they don't talk about inequality they hardly mention inequality, they talk about incapacity to pay their bills, they talk about impoverishment, job insecurity, things like this.

They are not comparing themselves to others, which inequality implies that comparison with others. And actually it is not easy to compare yourself to others, we don't see how much others have. Also, let's not forget that in capitalism the poor often envy the rich, they admire them. . So there is not so much concern with inequality on the end of the impoverished people, but curiously enough, precarity runs all the way to the top indeed.

The rich and the highly skilled suffer precarity either because their money is invested say in volatile financial markets, or because of the performance pressures they have on their jobs. So they end up with a variety of mental stress disorders. They're basically miserable, although they are envied as being the winners of capitalism and of globalization.

In the book, I review surveys of millionaires who say that they would much rather not work and step out, enjoy their lives, but they remain trapped in their lucrative jobs, because they're either worried that their investments are insecure, or they worry about their children and their grandchildren, that they're not going to make it. So yeah. Precarity goes all the way from the bottom to the top.

MARK BLYTH: Let me sort of back out of this, now more traditional scholars would then say, OK. So what we need to do is rebuild the welfare state. Right? Because that's decommodification, that gives you an exit. Right? You do not think that is sufficient or likely, why is that?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Well, that's the default answer, now we're so nostalgic for the welfare state, and that's dangerous, because what the welfare state did is create wealth through stress on consumption and production. And this consumption production on the one hand destroyed the environment, on the other hand created a sense of justice around an entitlement to be middle class and increasingly affluent.

This is not only unsustainable, it is just stupid. This cannot be our ideal of well-being around how much we can consume, and how much we can destroy the environment. So it is both wrong and no longer feasible. This model of progressive politics. So the problem is that the two components of the contemporary agenda of progressive transformation, namely ecological and social justice, are intention.

If we understand social justice as growth and redistribution, and ecological justice as transitioning to a more sane process of consumption, transportation, production, et cetera. These two things are in tension, we cannot plausibly expect people to endorse the green transition if their livelihoods are invested in jobs that destroy the environment. So I'm proposing that we refocus the idea of social justice from growth and redistribution to fighting precarity.

Fighting for economic stability, not for affluence, not for equality in affluence. Because people might endorse less material prosperity as long as their lives are secure. So that is going to, in my mind, going to make the ecological and social justice agendas finally compatible.

MARK BLYTH: So before we leave it though, let's really unpack precarity once more. It's not just competitiveness that's driving this, you have this argument, which is similar in a sense to the work of Danny Blanchflower, and people like this, on where the good jobs have gone. Basically, we aren't generating the type of jobs that would make capitalism, in its old form, sustainable. Now we are generating what David Graeber called, bullshit jobs. We've got a lack of good jobs in Danny's term.

You have a particular take on this as well, in terms of like two things that happened in the labor market, those two things being acute job dependency, and surplus employability. What are these and why are these the drivers that we need to worry about for creating mass precarity?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: So these are indeed the features of our contemporary form of capitalism. First, in our times we have become technologically capable to produce our livelihoods with very little input from labor, thanks to technological-- mostly to IT. So there is this potential for the commodification of labor for reducing the productive reliance on participation in the labor market.

However, this potential stays unrealized. On the contrary, we have more and more pressure to make us dependent on holding a job. So that's the paradox, that we do not, in principle, objectively need to be economically active in order to satisfy our needs as a society, but as individuals, we are made to depend more on holding a job and remaining employable.

The acute job dependency is the tension between the decreased availability of good jobs, and increased reliance on a job as a source of livelihood. This can be resolved, I propose, not by artificial inflation of jobs, because these would be bullshit jobs. It would not be resolved by universal basic income, in the book I endorse universal basic income.

But I believe that in the current conditions, when governments are so indebted and there is not sufficient funds to invest in building up the commons, in public services, such as health care, development of science. That we need first to invest in such things in the commons, rather than making individuals independent from the labor market.

So the solution that I propose is job sharing, of course you cannot really postulate like in socialist times, that I lived, the State would just give us each employment and say, well, this is your employment, this is where you work, this is how long you work. Of course, we cannot-- I wouldn't celebrate this kind of authoritarian distribution of employment, but we can achieve that by creating the conditions for maximization of voluntary, and that's important, voluntary employment flexibility.

The capacity of everybody to enter and exit the labor market at will. Now why is that both important and feasible? Because studies show that free time, a time not used in a gainful employment, the value of free time is on the rise among all strata. So people stay on the job out of insecurity, and back to the idea of the precarity of the rich.

It is the insecurity, the precarity that makes the rich work more and occupy these jobs that are blocked for many other people.

MARK BLYTH: So if there's a limited number of what we would call those good jobs, the middle class jobs, that everybody wanted to get. If the competitiveness is leading to these change in the dynamics of the labor market, which is pushing down the majority, but increasing stressors all the way, even to the top earners. How exactly do you do job sharing in this way? There's a huge matching problem at the end of this, right?


MARK BLYTH: Because you've got nurses, who have skills. And then you've got people like me, who have other skills that are very different from nurses. We're not going to swap, right? How do you flexibilize it in such a way that this works, what does this concretely look like?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: OK. Look, my job is not to create social policies, the job of politicians and economists. But--

MARK BLYTH: But how do you imagine it?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Yes. I've thought about that. So how to reduce the incentive of working more than one would normally want to. So I'm thinking about how to disincentivize people to stay on the job when they want to work less. One of the reasons why people stay more invested in jobs, earning more jobs, is when the Social Security is linked to the labor contract.

So you-- on couple that, that's why I have proposed a trans-European social security system that is not predicated on participation in the labor market. Now this kind of citizenship based social security model exists in the Nordic countries, and it is a very good system that should be replicated everywhere. That is why, in fact participation, in the labor market there is lower. In the Netherlands, job sharing is almost the rule.

MARK BLYTH: So to Americans here this sounds weird, but in actual fact, there are real examples of it all over the world.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: There are real examples.


ALBENA AZMANOVA: Yep. there are real examples, it is not really something too-- very far fetched.

MARK BLYTH: And it goes back in a way to Keynes's economic possibilities for our grandchildren.


BLYTH: He's imagining that by:

Then it started to fall, and work time really started to rise as the competitiveness dynamic kicked in. So Yes. So let's try and bring this out into a bit of a close here. It's not that you're saying that inequality isn't important as a driver, but it's because inequality is absolutely imbricated with this more general phenomenon of precarity.


MARK BLYTH: That's really what's doing. So let's close by talking about the politics of this. You don't like the term populists, and that's connected to how you see these dynamics work. And now tell us how you think about the political changes that we've seen in the past decade? How do you think about this, from the point of view of precarity, rather than either xenophobia or inequality?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Well, if what drives discontent is precarity, it is not a temporary feature of political mobilization, eruptions of populism are usually aberrations. Well, this anti-establishment sentiment that is driven by precarity is not an aberration, it's becoming the rule. Because precarity is changing the whole landscape, the whole logic of political orientation.

It has brought to the surface what I call an order and security agenda of a very reasonable-- for reasonable concerns with physical and safety, concern with political disorder, concerned with economic insecurity and with cultural estrangement. So this is a very stable public agenda of concerns that I believe will stay with us, and will reconfigure the whole landscape of politics. Why? Because you cannot comfortably align this on the left-right continuum.

It cuts across, because there are demands for cultural cohesion, which are conservative. There are demands for social safety, which are to the left. So there is this mix between demands that cuts across the left and the right. So that is why I believe we are mislabelling the entity when we call it populist, it is just a new configuration of the political landscape.

MARK BLYTH: So rather than left and right, you reconfigure this between poles of risk acceptance, and if you will, risk rejection in that way.


MARK BLYTH: And it seems that the majority of populations are going towards that risk rejection, rather than whats accepted. right?

ALBENA AZMANOVA: More and more so, yes. More and more so and again not only the people who-- the sociologist, Guy Standing, described as the précarité. It is not just the précarité that mobilizes around the risk pole, we see more and more affluent people with good-- highly skilled professionals.

MARK BLYTH: What that suggests is that the traditional left, which no longer really exists, morphed into a kind of neoliberal acceptant left. Which embraces globalization, which, in a sense, invented asset based welfare, is comfortable with individualization of risk. They all seem to be hopelessly out of pace with the demands of the people who are clustered around the risk rejection pole.

And this seems to be something that's going to have a much more right wing or conservative and nationalistic tone. The left is really going to get outcompeted on this.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Absolutely. And see when we're precarious, when we're insecure and we long for security, therefore all these radicalization to the right is very logical against the expectations of the left, that the so-called crisis of capitalism will bring a leftward shift. But also the radical left is wrong to focus on inequality, because actually the departure from the neoliberal jargon, the neoliberal logic is only on the surface.

Neoliberalism typically focuses on individuals, on individual circumstances, on individual responsibility. And when we think about inequality, we actually compare individuals, we compare how much others have as compared to me. So it is the same logic focused on individual circumstances rather than on society as a whole. So the left, even the radical left, so you said that the center left is being neoliberal in its embracing of neoliberal globalization, but also the radical left is kind of quite sclerotic, because it believes that with some redistribution you would fix the problem.

Or even I believe that even increasing worker empowerment and participation in the boards of companies would not fix the issue, because the workers would get more complicit with the imperative of these companies to maintain competitiveness in the global economy. So that would maintain the logic of exploitation, alienation, destruction of the environment. So this is not a solution.

We really need to discard these already formula of the past. And think what are the appropriate solutions to the current predicament.

MARK BLYTH: And as you argue, if the solution is something that's simple and actually already tried, as basically building up the public commons, reducing expectations and giving people time off that they actually really want in the first place, you don't need a radical agenda, you don't need a utopia, you just need clear thinking about what the problem is. And the problem is precarity, it's not inequality per se.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: That's right. And also, because you see on one hand, there is a conflict between the winners and losers of globalization, the conflict between the risk and opportunity. But since there is still a overarching common denominator between the winners and losers. And this is, they're all afflicted by precarity. We could attempt to create this wide mobilization of forces against the drivers of that precarity.

And in my reading of the situation, actually relying on a socialist utopia would get in the way of getting everybody on board, because some people are really disappointed with that project. They reject it, they do not endorse it for many reasons. But these people still have an interest to oppose the precarity that is generated by the competitive production of profit, which is ultimately what drives capitalism. So we could have an anti-capitalist broad front without all these labels.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah. This is very similar particle with what Eric and I argue in the fourth chapter of Angrynomics, we call micro Angrynomics. That essentially people hate uncertainty, and what capitalism does in its modern form is the turn an uncertainty into the genetic condition. And people will fight to protect themselves against those uncertainties.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: And interestingly of course capitalism has always created uncertainty, it has been it's glory in a way, that you don't rely on established status, everything's possible. But up to a point, ownership of productive assets sheltered capitalists from the worst effect of capitalism. That was their security. We live in a different context, where the ownership of the means of production is no longer a protection.

First of all because these ownership structures are very complex, even the working classes, they have their pensions invested in the Stock Exchange without probably even knowing. So forms of ownership, forms of professional tenure are so diversified that you don't have any more this clear-cut divide of ownership that kind of sorted out capitalism in the past.

MARK BLYTH: Yeah. They took the up side, and the workers took the down side. Now in a sense, we are all embracing the risk of taking the downside.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: This means that the old solutions of the left focus on property ownership, like collectivization or nationalization of property, or empowering workers, say through increasing their representation on company boards. These old solutions will not do now, they're impotent against capitalism's key dynamic, the pursuit of profit. We've seen that a whole State can behave like a capitalist entity in the global markets. China is a clear example.

But also the workers, who own collectively their companies, would do anything to increase these company's competitiveness in the global economy. And in that process, would incur the same damage that free-market capitalism causes. So this is not going to alter anything much, as the left is hoping now. But, and here is the interesting twist, in my reasoning at least, we could attempt something else, something that has not been tried before.

We could use the typical institutions of capitalism, markets, private property, the free labor contract. And use them to undermine the very logic of capitalism, the pursuit of profit. This is what I call a strategy of subverting capitalism from within. For this, we do not need a spectacular crisis of capitalism, a revolution or a socialist utopia. This is a very pragmatic, but also a truly radical move, that will lead us to a brand new type of society.

MARK BLYTH: That's a great point to leave it. I enjoyed our talk earlier today. I really enjoyed recording this conversation with you. I look forward to reading many more of your works as they come out, and it's been lovely to talk to you. So until soon.

ALBENA AZMANOVA: Thank you, Mark.

MARK BLYTH: This episode of the Rhodes Center Podcast was produced by, Dan Richards. For more information, go to Thanks for listening.