Global transformation: the precariat overcoming populism

Transformations tend to go through several preliminary phases. In Britain, the ‘dis-embedded’ phase in the development of industrial capitalism involved the Speenhamland system launched in 1795, the mass enclosures that created a proto-proletariat, and disruption by a technological revolution. All this prompted a period of primitive rebels – those who know what they are against, but not agreed on what they are for – in which protests were mainly against the breakdown of the previous social compact.

Those included the days-of-rage phase that culminated in the mass protest in Peterloo in 1819, brutally suppressed by the state, and the Luddites, misrepresented ever since as being workers intent on smashing machines to halt ‘progress’, when in fact what they were doing was protesting at the destruction of a way of living and working being done without a quid pro quo.

In my A Precariat Charter written in 2014, sketching a precariat manifesto for today’s Global Transformation, I concluded by citing the stanza from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, written in reaction to the Peterloo massacre. Jeremy Corbyn was later to cite it in his campaign speech of 2017, which James Schneider recalls in his contribution to this debate. Shelley expressed it in class, not populist terms, as I did, in my case signifying that the precariat was evolving as a class-in-the-making. Corbyn seems to have expressed it in support of a left populism.

Until his drowning at an early age, Shelley along with Byron and other artists of that era, including Mozart, were railing against the bourgeoisie, which is why Mozart and Byron were both drawn to the Don Juan/Don Giovanni theme. The Romantics failed to arrest the march of industrial capitalism but their art put out a marker for the future counter movement.

The UK and ‘decent labour’

The trouble was that at the time the emerging mass ‘working class’, the proletariat, had not yet taken shape as a class-for-itself, and was not ready to do so until late in the century. Three other primitive rebel events should be read into the narrative – the pink revolutions of 1848, often called the Springtime of the Peoples, wrongly seen by some at the time as presaging the proletarian revolution, the brave prolonged activities of the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s, which advanced the cause of political democracy despite defeat, and the upheavals in the 1890s that the left have tended to underplay.

The latter marked an enormous historical error by ‘the left’. It is why the term ‘dangerous class’ was in the sub-title of my The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, published in early 2011. Although some Marxists have used it to describe the ‘lumpen proletariat’, the term ‘dangerous class’ was used in the nineteenth century to describe those who were in neither the bourgeoisie nor the emerging proletariat. They were the craftsmen, artisans, street traders and artists, from whose ranks came the leading figures articulating a version of socialism as rejection of labourism – freedom from labour, freedom to work and to leisure (reviving ideas of ancient Greece, embracing schole).

In the 1890s, against William Morris and colleagues, including some anarchists, who championed that emancipatory vision, were the labourists, state socialists, Fabians and others who wanted to generalise decent labour. By the turn of the twentieth century, the latter had triumphed and marched forward in labour unions, social democratic parties and Leninism, even though most of the first batch of Labour MPs in 1906, when asked by an enterprising journalist what book had most influenced them, mentioned John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, not anything by Karl Marx.

So, we should interpret what Karl Polanyi was to call the Great Transformation as beginning with a period of dis-embeddedness, when the old social formation with its specific systems of regulation, social protection and redistribution was being dismantled mainly by the interests of financial capital, guided by an ideology of laissez-faire liberalism. This produced growing structural insecurities, inequalities, stress, precarity, technological disruption, debt and ecological destruction, culminating in an era of war, pandemics – most relevantly, the Spanish flu of 1918-1920, which may have killed 50 million people – and the Great Depression.

The re-embedded phase came after 1945, with European welfare states, shaped by Bismarckian and Beveridge systems of social security and the Swedish model crafted by Gosta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner. This transformation marked the triumph of labourism, of the industrial proletariat.[i] It was not marked by populism. Its political leaders and intellectual architects were as uncharismatic as you could imagine.

The Great Transformation ran into the sand in the 1970s, by when de-industrialisation had frayed the proletariat as a mass social force. The trouble was that the mainstream left were trapped by their own history. They had built what is often called, misleadingly, les trente glorieuses, but, like Polanyi himself, they implicitly had a teleological perspective rather than a dialectical one. For too many of the mainstream left, the Transformation was essentially complete. The rest was a matter of defending what had been gained and fine-tuning the welfare state and state ownership of the means of production. But labourism was increasingly reactionary, in both senses of that word.

This was brought to a crisis in the cauldron of radical ‘primitive rebel’ protests in 1968. Once again, those participating in the upheavals knew what they were against but had less unity or clarity in articulating what they were for. Again, this was not a populist moment, it reflected the breakdown in the post-1945 social compact and the protest of elements of the dangerous class that despised dour labourism as much as capitalism. The bourgeoisie looked on with horror and disgust.

The loss of public energy and unity after 1968, and growing ‘stagflation’, created fertile ground for the emergence of the dis-embedded phase of the Global Transformation, the painful construction of a globalised market society. With due respect, interpreting what has happened in terms of populism is a distraction.

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