The New Statesman Essay - Goodbye to all that wage slavery

Democracy can benefit from the end of full employment, argues Ulrich Beck

You can have a hell of a time nowadays just trying to answer very simple questions. What, for example, is a family? What is a household? What is a class? I call these zombie-categories because they are dead but somehow go on living, making us blind to the realities of our lives. Ask yourself: what actually is a family nowadays? What does it mean? Even parenthood, the core of family life, is beginning to disintegrate under conditions of divorce. Families can be constellations of very different relationships. Take, for example, the way grandmothers and grandfathers are being multiplied by divorce and remarriage (without any genetic engineering). They get included and excluded without any say in the matter. The grandchildren meanwhile have to make their own decisions about their families. Who is my main father, my main mother, my grandma and grandpa? And the answers may vary at different stages of life.

Again, sociologists keep on collecting data to prove the reality of class. But how do they define class? Class is usually defined by household; the "breadwinner" is the basic unit from which classes are constructed. But what is a "household" nowadays? The answer seemed quite straightforward ten or 20 years ago. Today there is no simple answer. Single households, for example, now account for more than half the total in cities such as London and Munich. But this category is not singular. It includes both old widows and divorced men who may soon re-marry; and you have households of single people who may or may not be living in quite close relations with each other.

All this suggests that you cannot easily predict how people will vote, buy, live, eat, love, work. Sociology has to start all over again. Yet in our thinking and our arguments we are preoccupied by the power of those zombie-categories. One reason is that they are kept alive by a whole knowledge machinery of administrative statistics, economics and social sciences which produce and reproduce data on the old assumptions and so feed the zombies.

Then there is the zombie-category of "full employment". The biggest issue in European politics, we are assured over and over again, is how to retain full employment. Yet as the French sociologist Andre Gorz has observed: "Every policy, no matter on which ideology it relies, is false if it does not recognise the fact that there can be no more full employment for all, and that wage labour cannot remain at the centre of life, indeed cannot even remain the principal activity of each individual."

All over the world the category of work that is growing most rapidly is precarious, fragile work - flexible work, including self-employment and work with short-term or no contracts. To quote the New Statesman headline over an article by Ralf Dahrendorf (15 January): "It's work, Jim - but not as we know it."

The speed and scale of this transformation has been remarkable. I was a member of a German government commission on the future of work. We found that, in Germany in the seventies, only one-tenth of the population were "flexiworkers" in the broadest sense. In the eighties the proportion grew to one-quarter; in the nineties to one-third. If this dynamic continues, then in ten to 15 years' time at least half the employable population in the west will be working under fragile conditions.

So we are living with two models of full employment, which have to be distinguished very carefully. One is the welfare, postwar model of normal full employment, secure work contracts, middle-class careers, jobs for life. The other model is what we would call fragile or flexible employment, which means flexitime, part-time work, short-term contracts, people juggling different types of work at the same time. Women have worked like this throughout history; so have most people in "underdeveloped" countries. So what we westerners are heading for can be called a feminisation or a Brazilianisation of work. As with the family, the exception is becoming the rule. Why do we accept the pluralisation of the family but not the pluralisation of work?

We think of casual, informal work as something confined to marginalised groups such as the poor, ethnic minorities and immigrants. But flexitimers are to be found in all social categories, among those with high as well as low qualifications, mostly women but more and more men, too. Equally, poverty becomes "dynamic" - it is chopped up into life phases and distributed across all social strata. It becomes a normal experience and often not just a temporary one, even in the middle of society.

The first age of modernity was distinguished by its securities, its certainties, its clear boundaries; the second is distinguished by its insecurities, its uncertainties, its dissolution of boundaries. In this second age of modernity, every field - the economy, society and politics - is governed by the risk regime.

Whether the dollar rate changes, interest rates rise or fall, the East Asian or South American banks and markets totter, Greenpeace intervenes and there is an ecological revolt by consumers - the order books, investment decisions and management strategies change from one year to the next, from one quarter to the next, often from one week to the next. Everything is possible and consequently nothing can be predicted and controlled. In this world of global risks the Fordist regime of standardised mass production on the basis of an inflexible, segmented, hierarchical division of labour becomes a decisive impediment to the utilisation of capital. Where demand is unpredictable, both in quantity and quality, where markets have diversified worldwide and are therefore uncontrollable, where information technologies simultaneously make possible new kinds of decentralised and global production, then the bases of standardised production and work, as formulated in Frederick Taylor's "scientific management" (and adopted by Lenin for the Soviet philosophy and organisation of work) are no longer applicable.

Rises in productivity require flexibility in all dimensions: work time, place of work and work contract. So the risk regime, and precarious employment, encompass and transform ever larger parts of work and living conditions. This occurs not only in low-skill employment but also in jobs demanding high qualifications. Indeed, the category of workers who can be called "permanently temporary" is growing fastest in the information economy.

This revolution in the labour market replaces the orderly world of Fordism and Taylorism with a political economy of uncertainty whose social and political implications are still unclear. We have a new power game between territorially fixed actors - labour, governments, parliaments and trade unions - and non-territorially bounded actors - capital, financial and commercial forces. Capital has become global, while labour remains local. The nation state's room for manoeuvre has shrunk to the alternative of either paying for increasing poverty with high unemployment (as in most European countries) or of accepting conspicuous poverty in return for somewhat less unemployment (as in the USA).

Rising unemployment in Europe can no longer be ascribed to cyclical economic crises; it is a consequence of the success of a technologically advanced capitalism. We have to change our economic language. Economic growth, for example, is no longer a valid indicator of job creation, just as job creation is no longer a valid indicator of employment and employment is no longer an indicator of income levels and secure status. Even the life of the affluent is becoming insecure and today's success is no guarantee against tomorrow's fall. The job miracle in the US hides the political economy of uncertainty: the US is the only advanced society in which productivity has been steadily rising over the past two decades while the income of the majority - eight out of ten - has stagnated or fallen. This has happened in no other advanced democracy. Endemic insecurity will in future characterise the lives, and the foundations of the lives, of the majority of the population - even in the apparently affluent centre of society.

If this diagnosis is basically right then we face two political options. First, there is the "nevertheless" policy, which enforces full employment after the end of normal full employment. This new Labour policy believes that only work guarantees order and the inclusive society. In this view, waged work has the monopoly of inclusiveness. The second option is to rethink and redefine work as we have done with respect to the family. But this also implies rethinking how we deal with the risks of fragile work.

Has work always had the monopoly of inclusiveness? No; in ancient Greek democracy work was a stigma, the main symbol of exclusion. Those who were forced to work - women and slaves - were not members of society. If the ancient Greeks could listen to our debates about the anthropological need to work in order not only to be an honourable member of society but a fully valued human being, they would laugh. The value system that proclaims the centrality of work and only work in building and controlling an inclusive society is a modern invention of capitalism and the welfare state.

We need to see that there is a life beyond the alternatives of unemployment and stress at work. We need to see that the lack of waged work can give us a new affluence of time. We need also to see that the welfare state must be rebuilt so that the risks of fragile work are socialised rather than being borne increasingly by the individual.

We must, in short, turn the new precarious forms of employment into a right to discontinuous waged work and a right to disposable time. It must be made possible for every human being autonomously to shape his or her life and create a balance between family, paid employment, leisure and political commitment. And I truly believe that this is the only way of forming a policy that will create more employment for everybody.

I would argue for a citizen's (or basic) income. The decoupling of income entitlements from paid work and from the labour market would, in Zygmunt Bauman's words, remove "the awesome fly of insecurity from the sweet ointment of freedom".

I am not arguing for citizen income in order to lift the poor out of their poverty, important though that is. My argument is, I believe, stronger: we need a new alternative centre of inclusion - citizen work combined with citizen income as conditio sine qua non for a political republic of individuals who create a sense of compassion and cohesion through public commitment.

With the introduction of self-organised citizen work, there comes into being a new centre of inclusion in addition to waged work, an alternative source of activity and identity, which not only gives people satisfaction but revives everyday democracy. The French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, has characterised the politics of the Third Way with the sentence: "Market economy yes, market society no." In this sense, citizen work is state-sanctioned withdrawal from the market economy. Here, space is created for democratic society through all kinds of self-organised activities.

My vision, then, is of a society in which people gain sovereignty over their own time instead of a society fixated by waged work. But there are countless questions and dilemmas. How does one organise spontaneity? Who is going to pay for it all? I shall make only a brief comment on this last urgent question. In Europe billions of euros in the shape of unemployment benefit and welfare payments are spent so that work is not done. Why not gain support with the slogan "Money for citizen work and not for unemployment"?

Does the idea of citizen work derive from a middle-class idyll? And will it perhaps even be counter-productive because it establishes a cheap wage sector, which contributes to the elimination of regular waged work? Citizen work must not lead to a new class division between those in waged employment and those in unwaged work. Then citizen work would become a ghetto for the poor. Nor must it contribute to women being pushed out of waged work, thus cementing their double burdens to work outside and inside the family. Hence the stimulation of citizen work democracy is tied to the following model:

1. A reduction of working time for all in full-time waged work.

2. Each and every person, woman and man, should have one foot in waged work if they so wish.

3. Parenting - work with children - will be acknowledged by society, along with artistic, cultural and citizen work so that all guarantee rights to, for example, pensions and sickness insurance.

So the end of full employment need not be a catastrophe. It can allow every person to become a member of a cosmopolitan civil society in Europe - what Immanuel Kant called "the most sublime idea a man can have of his destination". Through what I call "citizen work", European democracy could find its soul.

Representative democracy contradicts the self-determination of the individual. It is founded upon the rule of the common will against the individual which, as Kant says, is a contradiction of the general will with itself. The alternative to national majority democracy is what I call a cosmopolitan republicanism. By this I mean the revaluation of the local and the self-responsibility of civil society - an active society where political processes are not simply organised in parliament and in the government but at a local and everyday level of the citizen, too. Civil society is in poor repute among politicians because it does not meet their standards of efficiency. The technocratic speech of so many politicians is a cancer on democratic belief. We need a society which is not simply centred on waged work but willing to finance citizen work and income - forms of self-organisation, and experimental life forms and politics, which are already going on. Such a democratisation of democracy needs to happen on a transnational European level.

This article is based on a lecture last month at the London School of Economics, where the writer is the "Journal of Sociology" visiting centennial professor of sociology. He is also professor of sociology at the Institute of Sociology, University of Munich