What follows are a few thoughts about precarious labour and Marx’ Capital. They should not be considered exhaustive. I have also simplified Marx’s argument to a large extent.
In reading Michael Heinrich’s masterful 2012 Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, I was struck by his remark that, in order to increase the production of relative surplus value, only two mechanisms lay open to the capitalist, and that one of these “is difficult to imlpement and […] cannot happen permanently” (105). The case which Heinrich dismisses is when “the quality and quantity of the means of subsistence considered necessary is reduced”. What I think Heinrich misses here is that the standard of living of the working class is just as much a social determination as everything else in Capital (albeit with a hard lower limit), and that since the end of the Second World War, that standard of living has - in the developed West, and for a certain section of the working class - been steadily rising. It stands to reason that, having devised a mechanism to reduce this standard of living, capital should employ it, in the name of increased profitability. This mechanism is, of course, precarious labour.
The previous paragraph requires some background explanation. In Capital, Marx identifies the source of value in human labour, and the source of capitalist profit in the exploitation of that labour. This exploitation takes place in the process of production, in which workers are paid a wage commensurate with their standard of living, but produce more value in a given working day than they are paid in wages. The extra value produced by workers is called surplus value, and the production of surplus value lies at the heart of capitalism. In order to remain competitive and to constantly maintain profits, the capitalist must always seek to increase the proportion of surplus-value time to the time he is paying for in wages. If a worker is paid $100 per 8 hour work day (the cost of maintaining the worker in her standard of living), and puts $100 worth of value into the product in 4 hours, then the remaining 4 hours provides free value to the capitalist (i.e. the capitalist gets $100 for nothing). The working day thus breaks down into:
4 hours paid + 4 hours unpaid = 8 hours (4 hours profit)
Now, the capitalist could increase the amount of unpaid time by increasing the length of the working day, but that is usually limited (in Canada, for example), both by legislation and collective agreements. The only option left for the capitalist is to increase the amount of value produced by the worker for any given length of time. If, for example, an increase in the worker’s productivity means that she produces $200 worth of value in 4 hours, and she remains paid $100 for the work day, then her wages are made up in only 2 hours and the working day breaks down into:
2 hours paid + 6 hours unpaid = 8 hours (6 hours profit)
Typically, this increase in the productivity of labour takes place through a) increasing the number of workers employed by the capitalist, b) increased division of labour and c) replacement of human labour by machinery. A side-effect of the increased productivity of labour is that the goods produced become cheaper, thus lowering the costs of the means of susbsistence (roughly, the standard of living) for the worker, allowing wages to be lowered. For Heinrich, this is the “typical case” by which productivity, and therefore the rate of surplus value, increases.
But, in the period since the Second World War, the standard of living of large numbers of the working class in Canada and the US has increased steadily above subsistence level. Due largely to labour action on the part of workers organized into unions, wages and benefits have risen along with the standard of living. That the entire working class has not benefited equally from this (i.e. people of colour and women) is indisputable, and there are solid economic (= capitalist) reasons for this. But for the majority of the working class, this has been the case, and capital has always looked for a way to get out of paying for much of this increase.
Precarity is a new term to use for, essentially, the condition of workers living right at the means of subsistence. Through zero-hour contracts, part-time contracts that don’t trigger benefits and don’t add up to much (if anything) above a living wage, the cost to the capitalist per worker is lowered, while the worker still contributes the same amount of labour (= value) as before. Some of the cost is offloaded onto the state, but much of it simply evaporates. The benefits of the long boom are wiped out at one stroke.
Precarity is only one mechanism by which capital increases relative surplus value, while also exercising its domination over workers. There are others, such as, for example, the mixing of multiple unions and non-unionized workers in a given organization, leading to competition and strife among the workers to the benefit of capital. But, in essence, precarity is nothing new - it only seems that way after the decades of rising standard of living after 1945. It is important to remember that precarity is the rule under capitalism, and the hard-won gains of the past 70 years are the exception. It is also important to remember that precarity and its particular mechanisms (e.g. zero-hour contracts) are not accidents or aberrations; they are part and parcel of the brutal logic of the capitalist process of production. As such, they cannot be dealt with through reform of the capitalist system, only by its abolition.